Off the Top of Your Head:
Hair as Subject and Medium in Art at the
End of the 20th Century
Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
The University of Texas at Austin
A number of people were crucial to my sanity and coherence during the writing of this hair-do. First of all, my advisor Ann Reynolds encouraged and calmed me throughout the entire ordeal. Her hair grew several inches while I wrote this, and it looks great. My second reader, Richard Shiff, and the other professors who supported this hairbrained scheme: Susan Rather, Adam Cohen, and the goddess and saint Linda Montano, all look fabulous in wigs. I thank them for appreciating the coexistence of wit and academia. Fellow thesis-writer Stephen Varnado gave me excellent feedback on an early draft, for which I am grateful. Not art historians, but gifted reporters, Robert Tharp and Joshua Fischer read and gave useful comments on individual chapters. The omniscience and laughter of Gwen Barton made her the rock of stability of the art history department and a healthy reality check for friends and fans. Those who distracted me from the single-minded purpose of research and writing deserve huge hugs and kisses for reminding me to have fun and play. Special thanks go to my parents who still call me the Short Blonde Kid even though I’ve been none of those things for some time now; my sister Dr. Jill, who’s already gone through this and could commiserate; Ted Cho, who is my Austin family; and the gang of Rachael Shannon, Sharon Comunale, Tom Holmes, and Alan Tull, for reminding me to keep the art in art history. My family and friends are the silliest and smartest people around. Some of them even let me give them haircuts.
August 13, 1998
Off the Top of Your Head:
Hair as Subject and Medium in Art at the
End of the 20th Century
Melinda Hillary Klayman, M.A.
The University of Texas at Austin, 1998
Supervisor: Ann Reynolds
This thesis investigates the connotations of hair and how artists exploit those associations to address topical issues in art. Hair takes on different meanings depending on texture, color, cleanliness, and context—its (dis)association with the human body. Through interrelated discussions, this thesis reveals various methods and meanings of hair as a subject and medium in contemporary art. This thesis addresses three themes associated with hair—race, gender, and body consciousness, using as case studies the work of three artists—David Hammons, Janine Antoni, and Mona Hatoum, respectively. The common strand that braids these artists together is their use of hair as a talisman of power to confront and transcend social and physical boundaries.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations vii
Chapter 1 Introduction 1
Chapter 2 Hair as a Signifier of Racial Difference: David Hammons’s Hair Pieces 14
Chapter 3 Hair, Fetishism, and Feminism: Janine Antoni’s Loving Care 36
Chapter 4 The Physicality of Disembodied Hair: Mona Hatoum’s Recollection 59
Chapter 5 Conclusion 77
List of Illustrations
Figure 1: Advertisement. “Sassoon Care. For Hair That’s Simply Moving.” 82
Figure 2: Advertisement. “Announcing freedom from unwanted hair…” 83
Figure 3: Advertisement. “Discover how hair transplants can help you.” 84
Figure 4: Anonymous, Memento mori: Hair bracelets, second half of the nineteenth century. 1 x 2 1/4 in. (Hair, 25.) 85
Figure 5: David Hammons, Rocky, 1990. Rock, hair, wire. 37 x 13 x 13 in. Jack Tilton Gallery, New York. (Dan Cameron, 68.) 86
Figure 6: David Hammons, Fragment of the Milky Way, 1992. Photo Jules Allan. (Parkett 31, 31.) 87
Figure 7: David Hammons, Haircut, 1992. (Parkett 31, 42.) 88
Figure 8: David Hammons, Esquire, 1990. Hair, stone, railroad tie. 45 x 9 x 5 in. Installation view at “Rousing the Rubble,” P. S. 1 Museum, 1990. (Rousing the Rubble, 63.) 89
Figure 9: Constantin Brancusi, Beginning of the World, c. 1920. Marble, metal, stone. 30 x 20 x 20 in. Dallas Museum of Art. (Dallas Museum of Art, 130.) 90
Figure 10: FBI Wanted Poster: Angela Yvonne Davis, 1970. (Angela Davis, 170.) 91
Figure 11: Fashion layout, Vibe magazine, 1994. Photograph Albert Watson. (Angela Davis, 172.) 92
Figure 12: David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988. Tin, plywood, sledgehammers, Lucky Strike cigarette wrapper, American flag. Installation view from “Rousing the Rubble,” San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, 1991. (In the Hood, 13.) 93
Figure 13: David Hammons, Bag Lady in Flight, 1982/1990. Shopping bags, grease, hair. 48 x 113 x 5 in. (In the Hood, 15.) 94
Figure 14: Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (no. 2), 1912. Oil on canvas. 57 1/2 x 35 1/16 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Marcel Duchamp, 257.) 95
Figure 15: David Hammons, Injustice Case, 1970. Body print. 40 1/2 x 62 1/2 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Rousing the Rubble, 22.) 96
Figure 16: David Hammons creating a body print. (Rousing the Rubble, 10–11.) 97
Figure 17: David Hammons, Higher Goals, 1983. Fifty-five foot tall basketball poles. 121st Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard, Harlem. (Rousing the Rubble, 32.) 98
Figure 18: David Hammons, House of the Future, 1991. “Places with a Past,” Spoleto Festival, Charleston, South Carolina. (Dan Cameron, 71.) 99
Figure 19: Mimi Smith, Steel Wool Peignoir, 1966. Steel wool, nylon, lace. 59 x 29 x 8 in. Collection the artist. (The Power of Feminist Art, 80.) 100
Figure 20: David Hammons, Untitled, 1992. Copper, wire, hair, stone. 60 in. high. Whitney Museum of American Art. (Abject Art, 78.) 101
Figure 21: Janine Antoni, Loving Care, 1992–. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, Spain, 1995. Photograph Jordi Calafell. (Wadsworth pamphlet, n.p.) 102
Figure 22: Janine Antoni, Loving Care, 1992–. Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 1992. Photograph Prudence Cumming Associates Ltd. (postcard) 103
Figure 23: Janine Antoni, Loving Care, 1992–. Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 1992. Photograph Prudence Cumming Associates Ltd. (Wadsworth pamphlet, n.p.) 104
Figure 24: Janine Antoni, Loving Care, 1992–. Performance and photographer unknown. (Slip of the Tongue, 25.) 105
Figure 25: Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock, 1950. Photograph. (L’atelier de Jackson Pollock, n.p.) 106
Figure 26: Janine Antoni, Chocolate Gnaw, 1992. 600 pounds of chocolate before biting, marble pedestal. (Slip of the Tongue, 9.) 107
Figure 27: Hannah Wilke, Super-t-art and “Beware of Fascist Feminism,” 1974. (RoseLee Goldberg, 175.) 108
Figure 28: Yves Klein, Anthropometries, 1960. Nude models, blue paint, canvas. (RoseLee Goldberg, 146.) 109
Figure 29: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Inside, 1973. Performance at Wadsworth Atheneum. Photo courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc. (Wadsworth pamphlet, n.p.) 110
Figure 30: Mona Hatoum, Recollection, 1995. Hair balls, strands of hair hung from the ceiling, wooden loom with woven hair, table, soap. Dimensions variable. Installation Beguinage St. Elizabeth, Kortrijk, Belgium. Collection De Vleeshal, Middelburg, the Netherlands. (Mona Hatoum, Phaidon, 92.) 111
Figure 31: Mona Hatoum, Recollection, 1995. Hair balls, strands of hair hung from the ceiling, wooden loom with woven hair, table, soap. Dimensions variable. Installation Beguinage St. Elizabeth, Kortrijk, Belgium. Collection De Vleeshal, Middelburg, the Netherlands. (Mona Hatoum, Phaidon, 104.) 112
Figure 32: Mona Hatoum, Recollection, 1995. Hair balls, strands of hair hung from the ceiling, wooden loom with woven hair, table, soap. Dimensions variable. Installation Beguinage St. Elizabeth, Kortrijk, Belgium. Collection De Vleeshal, Middelburg, the Netherlands. (Mona Hatoum, Phaidon, 101.) 113
Figure 33: Mona Hatoum, Recollection, 1995. Hair balls, strands of hair hung from the ceiling, wooden loom with woven hair, table, soap. Dimensions variable. Installation Beguinage St. Elizabeth, Kortrijk, Belgium. Collection De Vleeshal, Middelburg, the Netherlands. (Mona Hatoum, Phaidon, 103.) 114
Figure 34: Mona Hatoum, Corps étranger/Foreign Body, 1994. Video installation with cylindrical wooden structure, video projector, video player, amplifier, four speakers. 350 x 300 x 300 cm. Collection Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. (Mona Hatoum, Phaidon, 72.) 115
Figure 35: Mona Hatoum, Corps étranger/Foreign Body, 1994. Video installation with cylindrical wooden structure, video projector, video player, amplifier, four speakers. 350 x 300 x 300 cm. Collection Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. (Mona Hatoum, Phaidon, 143.) 116
Figure 36: Richard Artschwager, Hair Sculpture—Shallow Recess Box, 1969. (Vogel Collection, 80.) 117
Figure 37: David Hammons; Foreground: recreation of untitled 1981 work, 1990. Hair, rubber bands, popcorn, eggs, and wire. On wall: Flight Fantasy, 1980. Records, hair, plaster. Placed over refabrication of Lady with Bones, 1983. Shopping bags, grease, rib bones. Installation at P.S. 1, 1990. Photograph Dawoud Bey. (Nancy Princenthal, 79.) 118
Figure 38: David Hammons, Don’t Follow Her Smile, 1993. Wire, hair, two teardrop prisms on stenciled wall. Installation at “David Hammons: Hometown,” Illinois State Museum, 1993. (In the Hood, 44.) 119
Figure 39: David Hammons, Nap Tapestry, 1978. Hair and plexiglass. Collection A. C. Hudgins. (Yardbird Suite, 25.) 120
Figure 40: Janine Antoni, Deficit, 1991. Office furniture, fabric, hair. 42 1/2 x 58 1/2 x 64 in. Courtesy Sandra Gering Gallery, New York. (Hair, 41.) 121
Figure 41: Janine Antoni, Butterfly Kisses (detail), 1992. CoverGirl Thick Lash ® mascara on paper. 22 1/8 x 15 in. (left panel). Collection Susan and Michael Hort. (Slip of the Tongue, 27.) 122
Figure 42: Mona Hatoum, Hair Necklace, 1995. Hair, wood, and leather. Bust: 12 1/4 x 8 1/2 x 6 2/3. Collection Eileen and Peter Norton, Santa Monica. Photograph Edward Woodman. (Mona Hatoum, Chicago, 46.) 123
Figure 43: Mona Hatoum, Jardin Pubic, 1993. Painted wrought iron, was, pubic hair. 88.5 x 44 cm. (Mona Hatoum, Phaidon, 25.) 124
Figure 44: Mona Hatoum, Van Gogh’s Back, 1995. Color photograph. 50 x 38 cm. Collection Tate Gallery, London. (Mona Hatoum, Phaidon, 75.) 125
Figure 45: Mona Hatoum, Pull, 1995. 2-hour video performance. Künstlerwerkstatt, Munich. (Mona Hatoum, Phaidon, 74.) 126
When I was young I had long stick-straight pale blonde hair. When I hit puberty, it gradually turned darker and curlier until I finally looked like the rest of my family and was no longer the “shiksa daughter.” Hair has always been important to me.
Mine was beautiful. Long, wavy, and sunstreaked, my hair was a great source of pride for me as a teenager, and I resented not winning the “best hair” category in my high school yearbook. I dyed a streak purple as a rebellious gesture. My hair defined my identity, constructed my self-esteem, and communicated my thoughts.
People were always complimenting me, “You have such gorgeous hair; I want it.” So I gave it to them. I saved up clippings and strands that collected in my hair brush for months until I filled a dozen jars with “Genuine Melinda Hair.” I signed and numbered each and gave them to people as gifts. I was surprised and amused with their reactions, which invariably expressed disgust. What had been so desirable on my head was rendered dirty and disturbing when disembodied and displayed as jarred specimens.
In my early twenties, I cut my waist-length tresses down to a pixie crop cut. The new look completely altered my social interactions. Suddenly I looked older, more sophisticated, and tougher. Despite the same wardrobe, mannerisms, and personality, my appearance no longer communicated “California Valley Girl,” but now “New York Sophisticate.” People I knew treated me differently, and new people were likely to approach me. My new short hair opened avenues for experimentation. I played with different hair colors—I needed to find out first hand if blondes really do have more fun, if redheads are wild, and if raven locks would make me mysterious and seductive. I toyed with wigs—my favorites were a mass of Marilyn Monroe-inspired platinum curls and a large black Angela Davis-style afro. With every new look I discovered a new identity, a new stimulus for outside response. It amazed me that a simple hairstyle alteration could influence my status and identity so directly, when in every new look, I was still the same young, white, privileged American woman.
Recently, I’ve noticed a number of gray hairs on my head. I look forward to experiencing interactions as a mature woman. I guarantee that people’s reactions will vary depending on how gray I become, whether or not I dye my hair, if I allow a line of gray roots to be seen underneath the dye, if I wear the classic helmet-head coiffure, or if I grow my gray hair long and stringy…and I plan to test each option.
The more I think about hair, the more symbolism I see in it everywhere I look. Goldilocks’s youthful purity and innocence is reflected in the blondeness that is her namesake. Compare Heidi’s straight blonde braids with Pippi Longstocking’s curly red braids as indicators of their respectively sweet and wild personalities. From an early age, children are taught that hair is a malleable constructor of identity when they play with toys like the “Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop” and the myriad of Barbie hair toys. What kind of society creates these toys, makes a body part into an expressive and identifying tool? Hair is integral to our lives, to the ways we present ourselves.
In the business to market the ideal human form, contemporary Western advertising and health propaganda set standards for the acceptable presentation of hair (figures 1–3). Advertisements obviously fill our minds with hair propaganda, focusing on a hair ideal and implying that anyone whose hair is not thick, soft, and flowing is flawed. The vast majority of human beings fall short of the criteria for ideal hair—which means that they can either live with the shame of their imperfection, or rebel against the prescribed hair aesthetic with willful pride, or even strive to change the general perception of a preexisting ideal. Advertising condemns dirty hair, too little or too much hair, manipulating consumers to buy hair products as they literally buy into the hair ideal. Fitting into the hair ideal also elicits problems of status and identity. Wearing perfect hair means bearing an object of desire—it renders its owner objectified and potentially fetishized, which may be at odds with a person’s greater concerns. And if the ideal hair is obtained artificially through chemical processing, does that imply shame or dishonesty in its wearer?
I must now make the shameful admission that I have discovered on my very own head of hair the dreaded split ends. Far more distressing than gray hairs, which are natural and noble in their maturity, split ends imply improper care and maintenance of hair. This flaw is something I have brought upon myself, something I could have prevented. Split ends are controllable, and the huge amounts of marketing aimed at this condition could have lead me to the newest and best shampoos, conditioners, and treatments to control this terrible infestation. Why are split ends considered the worst possible affliction, when they could be seen positively, as a 2-for-1 deal, for example? Why is there a fulsome amount of information on meeting the standards of ideal hair, but virtually no written discussion on the hows and whys of the emergence of a hair ideal? Although huge amounts of mass media focus on hair, it’s all propaganda—how to make it thicker, stronger, straighter, curlier, darker, lighter. Everybody knows the difference between a “good hair day” and a “bad hair day.” But how did hair get categorized into good and bad? These labels seem to be accepted without question.
Unlike hair advertising, which propagates the myth of an ideal hair type, investigations of hair in art and culture reveal a multivalent, deeply symbolic substance that is employed as a metaphor for broader social issues. Mythologies of all cultures ascribe mystical powers to hair. Medusa’s snaky hair rendered men impotent, Samson held all his strength in his hair, and Rapunzel’s long locks were her route to freedom and sexual liberation. The list of hair stories continues throughout the ages and civilizations. Hair is the quintessential fetish in both the original sense as a powerful magic talisman (as found on African fetish objects), and in the modern Western psychoanalytic sense as a displaced focus of sexual attention.
Artists throughout history have used hair to represent social status, sexual innuendo, and body consciousness. Egyptian pharaohs were entombed with their wigs. In ancient Greece, philosophers were denoted in portraits by their bearded faces. Ancient Romans designed their statues with interchangeable hairdos so that a portrait would never look out of date. Hairstyles indicate social and political status in Assyrian statues. During the Italian Renaissance, Botticelli painted hair like drapery and Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa with a carefully plucked hairline and eyebrows. Hair in pre-Revolutionary France demonstrated the extraordinary decadence of the age in both the size and detail of elaborate wigs for both women and men. During the nineteenth century, the Pre-Raphaelites fetishized hair in their drawings and paintings while women wove memento mori—rings, lockets, and other small trinkets—from their own hair or the hair of their deceased (figure 4).
This art historical sampling, with the exception of the memento mori, illustrates the significant representation of hair rather than the incorporation of actual physical hair. Real hair in an art piece is an intrusion of reality into what is more comfortably viewed as a discrete art object. The inclusion of hair recalls human presence, social interactions, and physical mortality. Memento mori means, literally, memory of death. Unlike paintings or sculptures that emphasize hair, the memento mori is able to signify issues of human life and death without any literal imagery, but solely with its medium, human hair.
When hair is removed from the body, it acquires morbid and base connotations quite different from the associations with a healthy head of hair. A wayward strand is dirty and insidious, independently finding its way into your food, your clothes, your bathtub drain. A plaguing source of anxiety, hair loss implies aging, disease, and loss of virility. That which signifies health in life is also uniquely capable of indicating a visceral mortality.
Looking for hair, I have noticed how frequently I find it unexpectedly or disturbingly—in my food, in the corners of my room, on a bar of soap, on a woman’s face, growing from a mole. Like the memento mori, disembodied hair is a reminder of human mortality, of death and decay. Somehow hair becomes disgusting as soon as it is removed from its privileged status on the head. Detached or misplaced hair is dirty and diseased, even though the same substance signifies youth and health when rooted on the scalp.
Hair is fascinating because everyone grows it, but no one’s is the same. And although it comes from our bodies, it exists outside ourselves. Hair is somewhere between fashion and nature. We can alter and style our hair, but it always maintains its natural inclinations. Hair is fibrous, not fleshy like the rest of our bodies. It is at once human and inhuman, living and dead, part of us but separate. Hair communicates messages of status and identity when it is on the head. Hair reminds us of mortality when it is off the head. It seems such a superficial concern that it is an unlikely suspect for the deep rooted issues it represents. Hair is powerful.
Given my own hair history, my hairstory, it seems a natural progression to be attracted to art that incorporates hair. Hair inspires, confuses, and contradicts varied emotions in contemporary Western people. Artists are able to employ the contradictory reactions evoked by hair in order to address broader issues of discrepancy, marginalization, power struggles, and boundary issues. Hair indicates an ideal, and by association, a misfit. Hair can make people react in different ways—desire, comfort, fear, disgust, whatever. Yet in each case, it marks and performs in boundaries. Contemporary artists eager to challenge the boundaries of artmaking incorporate hair into their work as a tool to evoke very personal, visceral reactions. It is impossible to respond to such a human and intimate substance with the same cool detachment traditional inanimate art mediums elicit. Hair not only tests the parameters of traditional artmaking, but also provides immediate associations to the prevalent issues hair raises—such as status, sexuality, and mortality—thereby offering an efficient means to grapple with identity both as an artist and as a member and critic of society.
As my interest in hair became more deeply rooted, I found countless artists who incorporate hair in their work, but very little text that seriously investigates the medium. Artists as well-studied and diverse as Vito Acconci, Janine Antoni, David Hammons, Mona Hatoum, Robert Rauschenberg, and Hannah Wilke have made art that incorporates hair, but in general, the writing on these and other hair artists mentions their use of non-traditional media, yet combs over and brushes aside the reasons and complexities behind their choices.
As I began the writing stage of this thesis, I browsed through the most recent issue of Artforum (September 1997) to discover five images or mentions of hair art, but no text that discusses them. Artists everywhere are using hair in their work. I am aware of one attempt to critically investigate the contemporary artistic predilection for using hair as a medium. A 1993 catalogue from a show simply titled, Hair, at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, collects a broad scope of contemporary art that utilizes hair either physically or in photography. The brief essays address some of the common themes in hair art, such as human mortality and sexual fetishes, but unfortunately the text is all too short and the issues and artists that I find most engaging are not discussed in any depth. One outstanding exception to the general dearth of writing on the subject is in the area of African American or black hair, which is far more understood as a signifier of status and identity than hair of other ethnicities. I find it telling that one culture sees cultural magnitude where other cultures are blind. The subject of hair is seemingly everywhere to be seen but only rarely and minimally analyzed.
A recurring theme appears throughout the various forms of hair art: not only do hair artists test the boundaries of traditional art by using non-traditional media, but they tend to push their own personal boundaries. Hair artists usually identify themselves with marginalized communities and allow hair to serve as a metaphor for their struggles within, and emergence from, social, political, or cultural restrictions. Because hair is an intrinsic element of Western culture and personal identity, natural but somewhat malleable, and importantly, removable, it is an ideal subject and medium for artistic exploration. Hair is unique in its inherent ability to foster human connections while maintaining an aura of self-contained mystery, to serve as a synechdochal reminder of the entire body, to embody the Other. Hair stands in for the artist’s body while its removability disturbs the integrity of the self.
The multivalent layers of meaning embedded in hair are combed through and rebraided into complex pieces by artists who grapple with different fundamental concepts of hair, the body, and identity. Specifically, I have identified three areas in which artists exploit the connotations and associations of human hair to engage in explorations of status and identity: racial difference, gender identification, and bodily alienation. For these issues, which sometimes overlap, hair highlights the artist’s liminal status as misfit. They do not fit into a safe category, but are not fully content in any marginal category either, and constantly shift back and forth. Hair describes and defines categories, but it may also be used as the tool to break down barriers. I intend to unknot the tangled strands of hair’s significance in contemporary art using the work of three artists as case studies. I will discuss themes of race and racism through the hair pieces of David Hammons, gender and feminism using a performance by Janine Antoni, and physicality and alienation through an installation by Mona Hatoum.
With David Hammons, black hair defines the boundary between black and white. The soft and flowing ideal virtually excludes the coarse and kinky texture natural to African American hair. David Hammons seeks a visual and tactile parallel for racism with his work in black hair. His art emphasizes the differences between the races while refusing the racist stigma of inferiority. Hammons uses hair to aggravate the stereotypical perceptions and rejections of black integration in white society with irony and wit.
The oldest and most established artist of the three I discuss in my thesis, David Hammons’s work with hair spans the last three decades. Taking various shapes and guises, Hammons’s hair art consistently incorporates African American hair collected from salons in predominantly black neighborhoods such as Harlem. A recurring preoccupation in writing about black hair is its difference in texture from white hair, and the processes African Americans undergo to achieve the smooth texture desirable in a white-dominated culture. Hammons exploits the fears of a predominantly white society along with the natural, unprocessed texture of black hair to associate it with non-human materials. In one sculpture, tufts of hair appear as cotton awaiting harvest. In another, dreadlocks join together to form a massive spider. A recent work features a rock sprouting hair as would a head. These sculptures trouble what otherwise should be a natural human feature; instead, they ask, is this substance animal, vegetable, or mineral? What is more, they locate and reconsider objects of African American oppression.
Hammons employs hair in several objects and installations in his ongoing examination of race and social politics. However, it is his graphic work (body prints) and public sculptures in African American neighborhoods (House of the Future, 1991) that have received the bulk of critical attention. Unlike his widely seen graphic work or public art, Hammons’ hair sculptures are specifically rooted to the gallery, where they are seen by a predominantly white audience. Perhaps it is due to this factor that these works readily connote the issue of a black artist operating in a white discipline and a still-racist America.
The reception of Hammons’ work with hair, which has been relatively ignored, stands in contrast with Janine Antoni’s wildly popular and controversial hair performance that I discuss in Chapter 3, which has become one of her most recognizable signature works. These opposite critical reactions reintroduces the problem of hair as a product of consumption, and offers an opportunity to investigate the trading of images among popular culture and the art world.
Janine Antoni’s beautiful hair positions her into the category of sex object, and prevents her from joining the ranks of serious artmakers. Like Hammons, Antoni emphasizes difference as defined by hair while refusing inferiority. Antoni explores the roots of ideal hair and the values implicit in hair maintenance in her 1992– performance, Loving Care, alternately called I Soaked My Hair in Dye and Mopped the Floor With It. Antoni’s piece teases out all the insecurities and technical challenges women contend with because of the modern notion of ideal hair. At the same time that Antoni demystifies the private beautification ritual, she revels in the process. Her work is at once dirty and sensual, fully exploiting the potentials of hair.
Antoni uses the hair on her head in her performance Loving Care in a way that truly involves all aspects of artmaking—the action of the artist’s body, the tactile process of the artist’s tool and pigments, and the reception and interaction of the viewer to this piece. Painting the gallery floor with her hair soaked in dye, Antoni crawls and mimics motions of modern dance, her exaggerated gesticulations calling forth associations of Jackson Pollock’s action painting. The hairs on her head are like the hairs of a sable brush multiplied to excess. Soaking the gallery floor with hair dye, she gradually pushes the audience out of the room, forcing them to view her actions through the doorframe; art mediated by distance.
With her poignantly disconcerting performances and objects, Antoni grapples with constructions of identity—the postmodern artist’s role in reference to twentieth century precedents, the female and feminist body in response to media-induced notions of beauty and acceptability. This was Antoni’s first piece to achieve wide public acclaim. Photographs of this performance are indeed compelling, both sexy and troubling. They utilize precisely the same elements that comprise effective advertisements—an attractive woman, a product, and snappy photography. The seductive attraction of this performance disconcerts art theorists and critics who strive to place her work in a spectrum of sexy to sexist, or feminine to feminist. Loving Care does not lie comfortably in such linear framework. Hair is evocative of often opposing and interconnected ideas. Attempting to comb through those issues can be a confusing and unruly task.
Mona Hatoum uses her own hair to draw attention to alienation from one’s own body. In her 1995 installation, Recollection, hair marks the boundary between self/other, human/inhuman, life/death. Hatoum searches the physicality of hair itself. She uses detached hair to create an existence unto itself, to alternately attract and repel, alienate and include the viewer. Recollection addresses the insidious nature of disembodied hair. The work involves scores of human hairballs shed across the floor and scattered into areas outside of the installation space, like so much gathering lint. From the ceiling hang nearly invisible single strands of hair which brush against the skin of the unsuspecting participant in the installation. These hairs bring to mind the disturbing errant and ownerless strands encountered in daily activities, not the welcomed touch of the healthy hair of a loved one.
When hair becomes separate from the body, it seems to take on a life of its own, which is at odds with the body it originated from. Mona Hatoum explores her own body, from both inside and out, in order to decipher and blur its boundaries. Her own hair in Recollection floats freely without its owner. This absence of a body and mobile activity of independent hair balls and strands implies the dispensability of human presence. Hatoum is at once present and unnecessary in this installation consisting of her own hair. She has made her own memento mori, a “permanent” of her own self-isolation, rendering herself obsolete.
A native of Beirut who emigrated to London to escape political upheaval, Mona Hatoum explores themes of loneliness, isolation, and prison in her technologically advanced art. She makes use of geometrical metal constructions, video technology, and exploratory medical practices; mediums which match the strength of the moral and emotional content of her work. Primary concerns of medium and isolation indicate hair as a logical site for artistic exploration, but the hi-tech quality of Hatoum’s work seems to stand at odds with hair as an earthy, visceral substance. Her hair piece is both a successful and anachronistic evolution compared to her regular hi-tech work.
The same stuff produces totally divergent reactions depending on where it is found. Artists play with that unique property of hair when they incorporate it into their work. When hair is removed, as with the work of David Hammons and Mona Hatoum, it is creepy and not quite human, but when still on the head, as with Janine Antoni’s work, it is too human to be art. The common strand that braids these artists together is their use of hair to address the ways in which they are marginalized in status. Hair becomes a metonym for the body of the artist, undergoing in concentrated form the same ordeals that substantiate the artist’s work.
These artists also share a concept of irony and mortality in their work. For all their seriousness, these hair artists never forget how perverse a world it is that attaches so much significance to a few strands of dead cells. Popular presuppositions about hair and the nature of these artistic projects have resulted in diverse reactions both within the art world and in general media. Perceptive and sensitive to the tendencies of society, artistic focus on hair as a medium and subject necessitates an inquiry to the substance itself. A human by-product that also seems to live independently from the body, hair is uniquely suited to address the most personal and universal issues of identity, status, and human mortality.
Hair as a Signifier of Racial Difference:
David Hammons’s Hair Pieces
Neri: Everyone knows the iconography of hair.
Hammons: But no one guessed that it was hair. They all called it “steel wool,” even in writing about it.
Everyone does not know the iconography of hair, and not all hair connotes the same messages. Hair holds multiple meanings and associations that vary according to hair texture, style, placement, origin, as well as who is viewing or touching the hair. All too often, hair in art is addressed with the same dismissive statement that its associations are equally understood by all viewers. The associations of hair are unique to its circumstances, offering a visceral substance that not only signifies the traditional fetishistic iconography of hair, but also raises issue with Western notions of aesthetics, culture, and politics.
The hair art of David Hammons works through tangled and ambiguous issues and connotations raised by contemporary black hair in Western society. In his hair pieces, the substance of hair is only occasionally associated with the human form. One of these, Rocky (figure 5), 1990, takes on a decidedly human male form. Kinky black curls cover the top and back of a head-shaped rock, growing sparser at the crown in accordance with male-pattern baldness. This “head” perches on top of a rusty painted plant stand. Hammons has produced several variations on Rocky, including Fragment of the Milky Way (figure 6), 1992, in which a Rocky-like “head” sits atop three mattress springs, Esquire (figure 7), 1990, where the base is an upright railroad tie, and Haircut (figure 8), 1992, where another Rocky-variation visits a Harlem barbershop for a trim.
That the black male is recognizable in these minimal pieces attests to the powerful associative force of the texture of black hair. This is not the first time a human form has been detectable in such a simple shape—Constantin Brancusi endowed the pure egg shape with human feeling in sculptures throughout his career in the early 20th century (figure 9). But with Rocky, the now hairy shape not only signifies the human form, but specifies gender and race, as well as indicates class and culture. Brancusi intended his work to be pure and timeless. Hammons applies found objects from a specific culture to invest his creation with individuality. The found plant stand and mattress springs derive from the mundane urban waste that provides the environment and materials for most of Hammons’ oeuvre. That a black person’s head sits atop these objects indicates a particular ownership. Hammons specifically links African American presence with inner city detritus and the solitary dignity of urban artifacts. Together, the elements create a proud and humorous look at a quality of life in contemporary African American communities like Harlem.
Hair is the hinge upon which comprehension of this piece rests. Without hair, the unsculpted rock would not be a head. A rock on a plant stand or mattress springs holds no significance, whereas an abstracted yet specific human head invests the pieces with meanings and connotations aligned with Hammons’ artistic concerns. The hair reinvests what was discarded with new life, new human sensitivity, and a specific cultural home. These pieces embody an essence of black life, joining objects used by black folks in their neighborhoods with the very real bits of their bodies. Hammons repeatedly explains that he prefers to incorporate used material like hair and junk in his art because in them he can sense the spirit of the people who owned them previously, and that spirit is infused into his art. One could argue these pieces contain the souls of the anonymous people included in them.
Given this, the unshaped rock seems to contradict the very the humanistic embodiment it is a part of in Rocky. After all, nothing is more devoid of life or personality than stone. Unlike a head (or the associations with a carefully sculpted likeness of a head), rocks cannot think, speak, look, or hear. A rock is silent, undifferentiated, uninteresting. Placed in the mostly white museum context, Rocky becomes a passive African American artifact, quietly displaying features of black culture without confrontation. But there is a tension between the head’s stony silence and its very human quality. Rocky is not entirely passive, and does confront the viewer, white or otherwise, with unwavering solidity. Its hair is Rocky’s refusal to be ignored or uninteresting. Rocky is funny and awkward and challenging; it represents a segment of black culture, but also the spirit of one specific but unnamed black individual, through the inclusion of that person’s hair.
Literature on black hair, which comprises some of the smartest and deepest writing on the subject of hair in general, seems to promote a binary distinction between black and white hair, generally disregarding other ethnicities. Other hair—Asian and Latino—has been the focus of profound works of art and holds powerful messages in the traditional art forms of the various cultures, but has been virtually ignored by modern English-language literature. Because Western black thoughts on hair directly respond to the presence of a white majority, my analysis also follows this black/white dichotomy. Hammons himself is not oblivious to the existence of other cultures, and has commented specifically on his fascination with Asian hair. “Japanese people, I can’t believe the way they’re designed. To me they seem unusual and different. I say, ‘Isn’t this amazing, the difference in their bone structure, their hair?’… [T]here is so much variety and it’s so remarkable. And as a visual artist all these things are extremely important to me.” More often though, on the subject of status and difference, the African American subject is likely to target the privileged white American as the standard of comparison.
It is also important to recognize that the English language is inherently biased by associating negative connotations to the precise words used to describe black hair. Western notions of beauty and aesthetics are white-oriented to such a degree that words like nappy, woolly, kinky, and frizzy imply faults that need correction and transformation into smooth, flowing, and wavy—words that better describe the texture of white hair. The black segment of the English-speaking population is unable to describe its own features in non-derogatory terms. Even the selling words on black hair care products like “sheen,” “glo,” and “soft,” tend to deny or downplay the natural frizzy quality of black hair.
In the modern Western world, black hair carries political and social connotations that speak to both the black community and white outsiders. African Americans in particular tend to be more aware of the statements and reactions generated by their hair and hairstyles than do their white counterparts. Processed or unprocessed, black hair is molded and coifed into statements of identity. Afros and dreadlocks, both inventions by black people in Western parts of the world, are symbols of black pride that clearly indicate a point of difference between liberated black people and white suppressers.
Kobena Mercer describes and deconstructs the invention and adoption of the afro and dreadlock hairstyles. The styles celebrate and exploit the natural kinky texture of black hair, and imply direct connection to Africa, but Mercer maintains that the afro and dreadlocks are modern Western inventions created to emphasize the difference between black and white. The afro especially, with its name clearly derived from the word “Africa,” and alternately called the “natural,” indicates a desire to associate Western blacks with a purer African ancestry, and to disassociate them with the industrialization and artificiality of Western society. The wearing of dreadlocks and the afro-kitsch accoutrements aligned with the Rastafarian style similarly constitute an image of a more natural state for Western blacks. Despite these intentions and connotations, Mercer reveals that modern native Africans do not wear these hairstyles. In fact, the afro and dreadlocks are specifically Western inventions, which would be visibly incongruous in African tribal communities.
[Afros and dreadlocks] invoked “nature” to inscribe Africa as the symbol of personal and political opposition to the hegemony of the West over “the rest.” Both championed an aesthetic of nature that opposed itself to any artifice as a sign of corrupting Eurocentric influence. But nature had nothing to do with it! Both these hairstyles were never just natural, waiting to be found: they were stylistically cultivated and politically constructed in a particular historical moment as part of a strategic contestation of white dominance and the cultural power of whiteness.
The afro and dreadlocks undermine white-biased notions of physical beauty. Emphasizing and built upon the natural frizziness of black hair, these styles reclaim the privilege of beauty that is linguistically denied through the derogatory terms of the English language. The 1960s popular slogan “Black is Beautiful,” demonstrates this proud reclaiming of aesthetic privilege and confidence. Furthermore, the proudly worn hairstyles shift the concept of what is “natural” from untamed and savage to pure and good. At the same time that they unite black people in pride in their natural features, this very celebration arguably creates a longing on the part of outsiders, white people, but excludes them by nature from experiencing or appropriating these aesthetic tools of self-imaging. White people who do appropriate the dreadlock style do so with great effort and cultivation. The result signifies a rebellious rejection of conservative, capitalistic Western values.
Afros were the style of choice adopted by the most visible black activist group of the 1960s, the Black Panthers. Never has any white hairdo so firmly symbolized any political agenda. Former Black Panther Angela Davis continues to be known today as “The Afro.” “[I]t is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo…But it is not merely the reduction of historical politics to contemporary fashion that infuriates me.” She laments the lack of memory and superficiality with which the public has glamorized her 1960s revolutionary look and forgotten the revolution for which she stood. Davis’s unprocessed afro was a sign of liberation and common struggle for equality. Its subsequent adoption as a fashion statement, she argues, misses the point and gravity of her cause. She calls a 1994 Vibe magazine fashion recreation of her 1970 FBI Wanted poster “the most blatant example of the way the particular history of my legal case is emptied of all content so that it can serve as a commodified backdrop for advertising (figures 10–11).” While Davis’s complaints are valid, they are naively simplistic. The docufashion examples she criticizes equally evince a sophisticated comprehension of the way politics and fashion walk hand-in-hand, and that one can use the other as a propagandistic tool. Her disillusionment with the popularized afro indicates a belief that fashion is less important or influential than politics. But she herself used fashion, her own hairstyle, as a political tool! When a fashion statement becomes popular rather than rebellious, it loses its radical potential for change. On the other hand, popular acceptance of a once-rebellious gesture could also mean that some degree of change has already taken place. In 1994, when the afro was no longer a fashionable hairstyle, its revival in popular culture could spark a renewed interest in activism.
Hammons translated the political implications of natural, unprocessed black hair into public art with his 1988 billboard, How Ya Like Me Now? (figure 12), depicting the politician Rev. Jesse Jackson with blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. Jackson’s African features are still easily discernible, despite his change in pigmentation to a white ideal. The billboard engendered controversy from all corners—white people were angered by what they deemed an offensive challenge to political impartiality, and black people considered the work a racist travesty of their leader. Soon after its installation, a group of black youths defaced the billboard with sledgehammers.
By altering Jackson’s hair color, changing him from black to white, and posing the snide question, “How ya like me now?” Hammons reconsiders the “natural” vs. “straightening” debate. Hair as a signifier of political ideology is an immediate association in the context of such a visibly active politician as Jesse Jackson. Hammons revisits the arguments for and against the “whitening” of black features, demanding a reaction from each race. Despite the growth in black pride since the 1960s, the United States has yet to see a black leader of the country. Hammons challenges idealistic visions of assimilation and equality. He posits that even if a black person appeared in a white guise, he or she would still be resented as a phony by both races. Furthermore, the billboard asserts that placing white features on a black man does not make him white, but in certain ways, emphasizes the ways in which he is unmistakably black.
The alternatives to natural black hair common among Western blacks involve chemical processing designed to relax tight curls. Straightening techniques provide both pride and pain—as a bonding ritual culturally specific to modern Western black people, as a physical accomplishment, as a personal victory over nature, and as a self-created image, hair straightening provides a positive experience for black people. However, considered as slavish imitation of white hair, a culturally enforced style code, or degrading self-mutilation, straightening processes inflict emotional and chemical harm on the black community. Yet Mercer suggests that hair straightening neither conveys a triumphant reversal of an unwanted feature nor a shameful cowing to convention, but rather, a cultural invention highlighting difference. Chemical straightening styles such as the conk, jheri curls, finger waves, or sculptural updos do not imitate, nor are they popular on, white or other ethnic hair. Neither do they attempt to re-adopt native African styles. Instead, they reinterpret a potentially demeaning ritual into newly invented, self-empowering, culturally-defined visual language. These styles employ techniques designed to straighten the hair, but result in looks that white hair could never achieve. They are styles unique to modern black communities in western cultures with primarily white leadership and social conventions.
Noliwe M. Rooks , bell hooks , and Lisa Jones fondly recall hair salons as safe havens for black women to congregate and gossip. The chemical burns, hot steel combs, and noxious smell of lye happily commingle with rites of passage into womanhood, and later, provide the jumping-off point for a critical discourse into the meanings of hair straightening. “I was an absolute adolescent. This was also the year I decided to straighten my hair. In the process of reaching my decision, I came to realize the extent to which my hair bridged the space between personal identity and a larger racial politic. Hair, I learned that year, is significant.”
At the very least, hair straightening implies a stylistic interaction between black and white, or “native” African and “modernized” Western. Taken a step further, the process indicates a black imitation of white hair, and a certain sense of shame for the texture that is natural to black hair. Malcolm X describes the ambiguity of his own experience of hair-straightening, recalling his first painfully acquired conks: “My first view in the mirror blotted out the hurting. I’d seen some pretty conks, but when it’s the first time, on your own head, the transformation, after a lifetime of kinks, is staggering….On top of my head was this thick, smooth sheen of red hair—real red—as straight as any white man’s….[This was] my first really big step towards self-degradation.” Hair processing is an equivocal practice; a sign of pride, but steeped in insecurity; a bonding activity among a distinct group of people, but staged in imitation of the dominating group; and yet not simply denoting mimicry as it invents a new form of identification. Hammons chooses to use only natural, unprocessed hair in his work, avoiding (while subtly suggesting) this controversial and complicated aspect of an already multivalent subject.
Whether natural or processed, characteristically black hairstyles—that is, those styles that allow the hair to be styled, that are not shorn short enough to deny or ignore their hairy qualities—are regal and crownlike in their volume and intricacy. Grandiose hairstyles or lofty headdresses command attention and connote a regal demeanor, functioning as a crownlike symbol of honor and privilege. The diverse intricacy of modern black hairstyles demonstrates that the black community has adopted their hair as a unique raw material to mold into encoded identificatory crowns. Self-stylized hair appropriately symbolizes black pride when reinterpreted as a genetic crown, echoing James Baldwin’s call for “African-Americans need to reclaim their (lost) crowns and wear them.” The personal choice whether to wear the hair natural or processed, as long as it is worn proudly, offers equally valid options that can both be argued to represent a liberated, positive image of black people.
Women especially undergo long and costly treatments, as well as sometimes unhealthy chemical processes in the effort to reform their hair into ornate statements of identity. Black women concern themselves with their hair more than do white women. A common enough phenomenon to have appeared on daytime talk shows such as Oprah Winfrey’s, black women hold far more value in the appearance of their hair than in their bodies or wardrobes, whereas the opposite is true with white women. A black woman wearing discount clothing commonly would wear hundreds of dollars of extensions in her hair. A white woman, on the other hand, would more often forego a timely haircut in order to afford a new expensive outfit. On the same note, black women tend to over-scrutinize the faults of their hair but have more positive notions of their bodies than do white women, who have widely publicized terrible body consciousness, but only moderate concern for their hair. For both races, the focus of hair attention weighs more heavily on women than on men.
According to this apparent gender imbalance of concern, then, “feminine” hairstyles are those that call attention to themselves, emphasize volume, and distinguish the wearer. “Masculine” hair, on the other hand, aims to disappear, be forgettable, allow the wearer to blend into the background. Gender-specific black hair treatments such as extensions and multi-style co-existence provide insight to both black culture and feminine tropes, but conversely, limit discussion to only the female half of the black community. Afros and dreadlocks, on the other hand, are worn by both women and men, and therefore speak to the entire community in a single political fashion gesture. Rather than propounding a binary distinction between masculine and feminine hair styles, Hammons’s hair pieces are often androgynous. If they seem more feminine than his other work, it is due to extrinsic associations of hair styling as a feminine pastime.
When questioned why his work tends to ignore women and speak from the male point of view, Hammons responded:
Hammons: I did deal with women in the hair pieces.
Neri: But the nappy hair that you used in the hair pieces is completely androgynous.
Hammons: Exactly. When I got to using the hair in my work in the early seventies, an artists told me that I had ‘emptied the cup.’ Maybe he was right, but I wasn’t going to let that hair retire me.
But in the end it did. I reached this bottom line with it. Zero-point. I got to a visual object and medium that was pure, nonsexual, which spoke everything I wanted to say.
Neri: Culturally specific Minimal Art.
Bag Lady in Flight (figure 13), 1982/1990, takes Hammons into this abstract territory that somehow speaks of femininity. It cleverly recalls Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (figure 14), 1912, and reinterprets the artistic trope to reflect Hammons’s own experiences in the urban black community. Like Duchamp, with whom he is often compared, Hammons rebels against the conventions of his artistic milieu, and abstracts the female form with the barest suggestions of her presence. She appears throughout every facet of the work, but nowhere is any recognizable human form depicted. The folded paper takes on an abstract design familiar from the 1970s large-scale abstract wall sculptures. But rather than utilizing hi-tech modern materials and techniques, Hammons incorporates his trademark found objects, already invested with the grime and wear-and-tear of its previous owners. “When you find a found object, the work is halfway complete because the object is talking to you. Whereas everything at Pearl Paint is devoid of spirit…” Greasy shopping bags scattered with triangular patches of nappy black hair clippings, recalling pubic hair, are the badge of the urban black homeless woman. Hammons dignifies his bedraggled materials and the individuals they represent by reforming them into an elegant sweeping curve.
The incongruity of this piece’s form with its subject matter pokes an ironic jab at the conventions of the art world. While the sweeping silhouette of this object merits inclusion in any minimalist collection, the incorporation of dirt, human materials, and narrative content ensure its separate consideration. Like the homeless woman to whom it refers, Bag Lady in Flight would probably be shunned by the average pristine gallery-goer. The inclusion of disembodied hair, complete with connotations of dirt and politics, disturbs the sterile environment and mind set of the white gallery.
As with Rocky, an uncomfortable tension rests between the human spirit invoked by the bodily materials and the calculated elegance expressed through the technique of this work. Hammons has once again chosen to perch some loaded hair on an otherwise cool, blank form. In both cases, the hair troubles the silence of what would otherwise be a sedate work of art. It invigorates these objects with traces of a specific, although anonymous, person’s life. They confront the viewer with their human essence. These works are not merely about the artist’s craft, about his skill, but forcibly bring forth the voice of an unspoken African American individual, someone who ordinarily does not converse with typical gallery-goers.
Hammons is aware of this discrepancy between the two worlds he straddles—the streets of urban black life, and the clean white walls of the art gallery. He understands that these spheres rarely interact, and appoints himself the interpreter between them, but clearly aligned with the black side, and only begrudgingly tolerant of the art world. “I’m speaking to both sides. I’m really right in the middle of the battle, and not, as most artists believe, on the outside looking in. I’m directing my work toward the galleries, toward the museums and toward the people who are coming into these places. As an artist I’m not aligned with the collectors or the dealers or the museums; I see them all as frauds.” In a later interview, Hammons clarifies, “…[T]here has to be something between low art and high art, a bridge to bring black people to high art. Someone has to bring them to that, and I took on the responsibility.”
Hammons defined his career by bringing high art to the black community, installing his monumental sculptures in Harlem and other primarily black neighborhoods. He entered the art scene in the 1970s with his wildly successful body prints in wheich he greased his body and literally pressed himself against the printing surface, to which he then applied pigment for a permanent print (figures 15–16). After his initial success, Hammons chose to reorient himself to the black community with his art pieces, and retreated from active engagement in gallery and museum showings. By the time he re-emerged to the esoteric art audience in the early 1990s, it was as if he appeared from nowhere with a full career of artmaking under his belt. Hammons had made the streets his gallery space, showing his work to his neighbors rather than wealthy art patrons. One of his most widely publicized public sculptures, Higher Goals (figure 17), 1986, comprised unattainably high basketball hoops atop poles covered with found bottle caps. The piece was a political and savvy reminder to African Americans that sports do not provide the only way to raise their status and situations, and that the chances of success are minimal. Another highly visible public work was House of the Future (figure 18), 1991, in Charleston, South Carolina. With this project, Hammons was able to directly rechannel money into the black community—with his commission from the Spoletto Festival, he hired a local contractor who in turn employed neighborhood workers to build a house. The structure is impossibly narrow for comfortable living quarters, and attracts attention through its exaggeratedly attenuated proportions, but its workers learned marketable skills through constructing it, and the building still serves as a shelter in its community. These pieces, like his Jesse Jackson billboard and other public works, received remarkable critical attention and success. The art community noticed them, but more so, popular media focused on these works. Outdoors and confrontational in charged urban environments, these works engage human interest for their political and social merit, independently of their artistic value.
In contrast, sculptures made of actual human hair could not weather outdoor exposure as do basketball hoops, houses, and billboards. The very material of Hammons’s hair sculptures requires it to be rooted in the gallery setting. Meanings and audiences change when venues do, and the gallery offers quite a different ambiance than the streets of Harlem in which to digest the sculpture of David Hammons. Usually so steadfast in his affirmations that his art is for the black community, Hammons made these hair sculptures fully aware that they could only be displayed in a protected environment, an art space. Even the galleries and museums whose demographics reveal a large percentage of African American traffic still primarily appeal to an elite economic and educational portion of society. Unlike his public work, Hammons’ hair art is relegated to the confines and comprehension of the art community. Furthermore, Hammons’ public art such as Higher Goals, House of the Future, and How Ya Like Me Now? carry overt political messages, whereas his hair pieces more subtly approach issues of black culture. Clearly aimed at raising consciousness in the black community, his outdoor work is more readily approachable for media comment than his smaller indoor ambiguous hair sculptures.
In the gallery space mostly attended by a white audience, Hammons’ black hair art is subjected first and foremost to outsider scrutiny. The texture of black hair is unfamiliar to the average white viewer. Taken off the body, the kinky curls become even more foreign. The white viewer, used to smooth hair in paler shades, is addressed or even challenged by these pieces that demand recognition as human and natural, but meanwhile provoke discomfort with displacement and incongruity. Also, placing the hair on an inanimate object allows the white viewer to get closer and stare longer than if it was still on the black person’s head. This displacement creates a disturbing intimacy not possible with a real person. After years of political action, “natural” black hairstyles have come to signify black pride, black power, black beauty. But these signs are only apparent when on a black person’s head. Removed from the body, all hair is rendered dirty; hair that is unfamiliar in texture to a viewer becomes even more problematic—it becomes unrecognizable.
That many early critics of Hammons’ hair work mistook the substance for steel wool reveals some of the biases and racial ignorance of the art world. The 1960s and 1970s were a time for activity and liberation in the feminist art movement. For example, Mimi Smith’s Steel Wool Peignoir (figure 19), 1966, was lauded by critics as a comment on women’s work and priorities. They had no problem understanding the juxtaposition of steel wool and a delicate negligee in the context of women’s issues. The art community was ready to accept feminist works, and interpreted new art with such notions in mind. So when a new wiry substance appeared, its viewers reverted to terms and forms already understood. Art engaging racial consideration was not as widely disseminated in the art press. Race was still just a political issue, not an artistic one. The previous championed artistic avant garde, feminism, spoke with different symbols than Hammons’s new work, even though they used the same strategies. Critics needed to learn a new vocabulary, where kinky could imply black hair instead of steel wool; but feminism had already taught them the grammar of communicating in a visually political and subversive manner. Race issues have been discussed and addressed as long as gender issues, but feminism was disseminated in artistic projects before black issues were accepted in the avant garde. Although examples of black activism predate feminism, feminist art retains chronological precedence over black art. Hammons was a pioneer in creating art about black issues that utilized some of the same tactics as feminist art.
The comprehension of Hammons’s hair art by a white viewer is a multi-step process. First, the viewer sees a piece, and then eventually recognizes (or reads label information to determine) the substance from which it is made, and finally must reinterpret the work with extrinsic connotations regarding black hair, the black community, and the elements comprising the piece. Obviously, a typical black viewer might more immediately recognize the hair in these works. In general, a white gallery audience comprehends Hammons’s hair art with greater delay than a black one. Hammons surely created these objects with his audience in mind, aware of the demographics of museum and gallery traffic. His intention, then, was to slow the pace of the white viewer to closely study and digest differences between black and white. It brings the “other” to an accessible distance.
At the same time, Hammons toys and teases with his human substance and subject. He purposefully denies their human origins, placing the hair in situations that speak of other sources. In Rocky, hair sprouts from a stone; Bag Lady in Flight offers hair on paper bags. In another series of work, Hammons creates plant-like forms with puffs of hair in place of cotton awaiting harvest, not only troubling the natural origin of black hair, but recalling the cotton industry as the primary financial justification for American slavery. Hammons refuses a simple understanding of black hair in his art. Hair is never a straightforward object of fashion, but a political tool, object of oppression, and signifier of difference.
Hammons’s hair art entirely departs from referencing the human figure with Untitled (figure 20), 1992. This large sculptural installation, frequently recognized as a highlight of the Documenta IX exhibition, has received more critical attention in the art press than any of his other hair pieces because of its inclusion in that prestigious show. With its prominent position in the Documenta exhibition, it was finally a hair piece as visible to the art community as his public political creations or early body prints. The monumental sculpture consists of barbershop clippings wrapped around a spiky armature resembling a sea urchin or multi-legged spider. Under the hirsute creature rest rocks and bits of urban debris—cigarette butts, gum wrappers, and other city refuse. The piece is a “mesmerizing monument to dreadlocks,” that outshined much of the other work at Documenta IX in critics’ reviews.
Untitled is massive but organic, funny but threatening. With a twist on the Claes Oldenberg sense for outrageously exaggerated scale, Hammons magnifies a mass of dreadlocks to a heroic and ridiculous stature, so that it only vaguely references a human feature, and instead takes on characteristics of a simpler, decidedly creepy life form. This gigantic hairy spider threatens the viewer with its monumentality, and to comprehend that the sprawling piece is composed of black dreadlocks signals a grasp of the power in what is traditionally held in low esteem. This phenomenon forms the bulk of Georges Bataille’s discussion of l’informe, wherein he describes the disconcerting implications of bringing noble and lofty forms down in value, of rendering them formless. “…[A]ffirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.” It is equally possible to argue the opposite: that to take something seemingly worthless, like a spider or spit, and raise it in status, would be to give it form. This is precisely Hammons’s ongoing goal—to render the discarded, overlooked, and undervalued worthy of consideration.
Untitled is undeniably humorous and positive. It celebrates the qualities of black hair, as well as black life, that enable it to come together in so massive a structure. It plays on the fears of dreadlocks as dirty, unwashed, and unkempt, emphasized by their detachment from the human head. The connotations of dreadlocks as a hairstyle, already intended to threaten the white viewer with a denial of Western aesthetics and politics, here becomes all the more imposing. Among other things, dreadlocks symbolize rejection of white oppression; disembodied and joined together, they create a new life form with an inner strength and solidarity that speaks of an irrepressible power. The brilliance of this piece rests in the fact that it is simultaneously imposing and ludicrous. Hammons is able to join several of hair’s associations in this one remarkable sculpture.
Hair can represent the human body and provide a fetish on which to relocate physical and social concerns. By fetish I mean both objects that contain protective power for those close to it, and a displaced focus for physical attention. Hammons constructs these powerful fetish pieces that contain power and fear, pride and oppression. These hair pieces are talismans for black recognition in a primarily white discipline. They evoke the body, specifically the black body, without actually representing it. The sexual nature of the fetish, most clearly suggested in the pubic triangles of Bag Lady in Flight, lives in each of Hammons hair pieces sublimated as an uneasy potency, both joyful and dirty in its associations. Hair invests these pieces with the energy and spirit of the individuals who inadvertently supplied the raw materials, the essence of the black community who inspired them, and the sensibility of David Hammons, who understands the scope of voices with which hair speaks.
Hammons removes hair, the symbol of both black pride and shame, from the head, its seat of distinction, whereby it takes on new associations as discard and filth. Then, recombining this disembodied, discarded hair into new formations, Hammons invests the substance with poignant commentary regarding the people from and about whom it was made. Hammons reinterprets major social and political issues with a nod toward personal interests and concerns. Hair is at once a symbol of a people and an individual feature that each person shares. It is important and symbolic, but it is also frivolous and superficial. Hammons’s hair pieces reveal this dichotomy, addressing relevant and weighty issues such as pride, power, and poverty, but always with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.
Hair, Fetishism, and Feminism:
Janine Antoni’s Loving Care
A recent advertisement shows the back of a woman, her long, lush hair spilling across the picture plane, her face entirely hidden. The text reads, “How much do you need to see to know that I am beautiful?” This kind of propaganda pervades the modern Western world. There is a certain kind of hair that immediately signifies feminine beauty—long, smooth, and flowing. We are accustomed to seeing beautiful hair in popular media, and know how to react to it—we should desire what is shown and respond with our wallets. In contemporary art, which typically ironizes popular media, how should hair as a signifier of feminine beauty be portrayed? What kind of new meanings does this kind of hair take on when it is reinstalled in the art context? How should the audience to react to hair art?
Janine Antoni has performed Loving Care several times internationally since 1992 (figures 21–24). It has become one of her most recognizable works and has been widely reproduced photographically both in art press and popular media. Excepting minor variations depending on venue, Antoni’s performance follows the simple ritualistic structure described by the work’s subtitle, “I dipped my hair in dye and mopped the floor with it.” Dressed in an unadorned black bodysuit, Antoni begins the performance by opening dozens of packages of Clairol’s Loving Care® temporary hair dye in Natural Black (the color Antoni’s mother uses) and emptying the bottles into a plastic bucket. She dips her long dark hair in the dye and then, on her hands and knees, drags her head along the floor in swaying, rhythmic motions, painting the floor in dye. Trained as a dancer, Antoni’s body movements are fluid, graceful, and trancelike. As the dye covers the floor it encroaches on standing room, forcing the viewers out of the gallery space and into another room where windows and video monitors reveal the artist’s activity. The stained floor, empty containers of dye, the bucket, and Antoni’s plastic gloves remain for the duration of the exhibition along with documentary video and photographs of the performance.
Although this piece has helped secure Antoni’s status as a bright young star of the art world, it has also met with critical controversy among the conservative old guard in the art community. Loving Care is championed as the quintessential example of the modern feminist avant garde in broad surveys such as The Power of Feminist Art. Meanwhile, it serves as the standard for comparison of contemporary work where it sometimes fares negatively, as with its reception in October, as I will elaborate, and in Catherine de Zegher’s comparison with Mona Hatoum’s Recollection, which I fully discuss in Chapter 3. The sometimes vehement and widely varied reception of Loving Care brings to the fore otherwise unspoken associations with hair as a sign of beauty. Antoni’s specific hair defines the work’s reception. Long, lush hair like hers is the kind popularly pictured on glamorous actresses and models, but when placed in the art environment, it troubles Western constructions of beauty. I propose that if Antoni’s hair did not meet the ideal standards for modern Western feminine beauty—if it was short or gray or if she wore a wig or used hair clippings removed from her head or any other such variations—the performance would have sparked less backlash; but by the same token it would have lost its potent effect and relevance.
As it was originally conceived in 1992 for “The Autoerotic Object” exhibition at Hunter College in New York, only the physical remnants of Loving Care were to be viewed as evidence of an ephemeral private ritual. Loving Care was to be an exercise in deriving pleasure from, in fetishizing, compulsive behavior. According to Juli Carson, curator of “The Autoerotic Object,” when activity rather than an object provides gratification, the fetish is dephallicized. “It is not the thing in itself, the mopped floor, that provides pleasure; rather pleasure is derived from the activity of mopping enacted as a fetishistic search for an undifferentiated subjectivity.” In this original conception of the piece, Antoni intentionally removed her body from the installation in an effort to discourage any attempts to locate a standard fetish object in her work. She discovered, though, that “[i]n doing so, Antoni refetishized a quintessential fetish of the female body (hair), isolating it as a paint brush and then removing its physical presence….Furthermore, in her effort to despectacularize her body, she found that absence instead more markedly pictorialized in image in the art press (people demanded to see the body that had made these marks.)” In her subsequent performances, Antoni reintroduces her body; she creates a visual continuum from process to remains. This way, she attempts to shift focus from the object, the remains, to the activity of her fetishized creation. But the critical reception has too often revealed a neglect of the final object and only minor interest in Antoni’s personal pleasure derived from the piece. Primary attention goes to the objectified sight of Antoni’s body fully absorbed in her ritual. Although Antoni fetishizes her activity, she risks becoming the object of fetish for her audience by allowing them to view her in the process of making the piece. What was originally intended to be the final work of art, the painted room, etc., only secondarily interests either the artist or the viewer—both have already found their fetish earlier—the remains are superfluous.
The issue of the fetish is essential here, but what is being fetishized and who is the fetishist are variables. The reception of this performance must be understood independently from its intention. Antoni herself fetishizes the physical process of her actions. A Freudian reading would see Antoni narcissistically deriving pleasure from her own body as she renders it attractive to the (male) gaze. Recognizing and compensating for her feminine inferiority, her lack of a penis, she phallicizes herself through compulsive attention to her own hair, body, and activities. Antoni is her own fetish. This Freudian interpretation is dependant on the gaze and visual pleasure of the audience, however, which was absent in her first performance of Loving Care. In that private ritual, which Antoni performed solely for herself, her pleasure did not rely on the presence of an active (male) gaze. Assuming she derives the same pleasure from her actions with or without an audience, Antoni exhibits self-fulfilled sensuality. Her audience, on the other hand, enjoys voyeuristic pleasure from viewing Antoni’s actions.
Fixated on Antoni’s lithe body, her soaking tendrils of hair, and her rhythmic horizontal movements, the attentive viewer achieves pleasure in the act of looking. According to Freud, in such a scenario, the woman represents the fear of castration and the fetishist is caught between the desire to dispel this anxiety but to believe in it simultaneously. “In the world of psychical reality the woman still has a penis in spite of all, but this penis is no longer the same as it once was. Something else has taken its place, has been appointed its successor, so to speak, and now absorbs all the interest which formerly belonged to the penis.” The fetishist refuses to look at the castrated phallus, but in doing so fixates on another object, in this case, the activated tool of female hair. He stares at this substitute phallus, gaining scopophilic satisfaction from visual possession. Here too, Antoni is the fetish, but she is rephallicized, making her the object of fetish, and no longer the active fetishist. Fetishizing her own activities is only marginally relevant to the fetishist who objectifies her femininity.
Feminists have reconsidered fetish theory, reinterpreting the Freudian preference for limited phallocentric explanations. Naomi Schor offers a reading of fetishism as a polycentered/polymorphous perversity. In Lacan’s broadened definition of the phallus, the fetish does not necessarily substitute for the mother’s missing phallus, but could be any phallus, and a phallus need not be a penis. A fetish supplies fulfillment where there is a lack; it reassures where there is fear. This suggests the need to determine what is Antoni’s lack, the lack she both hides and highlights through attention to her own fetishistic actions. Likewise, what is the lack or fear for the audience, who fixates so intently on Antoni’s body?
Cases of female fetishism are extremely rare in psychoanalytic documents, initially suggesting that female fetishism might be an oxymoron. Upon closer examination though, female fetishism does exist, only in different forms than the more prevalent male fetishism. Woman tends to fetishize her own body, or what her body produces. Occasionally, she fetishizes an object extrinsic to herself such as a man’s mustache or an article of clothing, a condition Elizabeth Grosz studies in terms of Freud’s “masculinity complex.” The problem in searching for examples of female fetishism is the prevalent but narrow approach of equating a fetish with a substitute for the mother’s phallus. Freud could not find female fetishism because he was looking in the wrong place. Women do not need to replace their nonexistent penis, but they do desire compensation for their lack of power.
Antoni has spoken of the disenfranchised status of women in the art world. “I feel attached to my artistic heritage and I want to destroy it: it defines me as an artist and it excludes me as a woman, all at the same time.” It is the continued disempowerment of women in the art world that inspires Antoni’s fetishistic actions. Her lack that requires compensation, then, is the ability to achieve security and recognition in the art world as a woman. She simultaneously recognizes and rebels against acknowledging her lack of power in the art world, her artistic castration anxiety, if you will. This uncomfortable recognition of enforced female inferiority leads Antoni to fetishize the practice of artmaking, in a stubbornly and fiercely feminine manner. She exploits the most recognizable traits of feminine supression, objectification, and fetishization, such as long, pampered hair, to a virile artistic end. Antoni’s actions give her pleasure because she performs both macho and dainty rituals simultaneously, thereby destabilizing each.
Images of Loving Care readily recall Hans Namuth’s photographs of Jackson Pollock at work (figure 25), the virile genius in a passionate yet methodical trance, creating a seminal masterpiece. Both black-and-white studies feature an artist deeply engaged in action, the painting removed from the easel and repositioned horizontally on the floor. Brushes are dispensed with as the artist’s body disperses the pigment. But whereas popular media celebrates Pollock’s status at the forefront of artmaking—in 1958 Life Magazine posed the hypothetical question, “Is He the Greatest Living U.S. Artist?”—critics vilify Antoni for essentializing the female body. This disparity partially results from the conditions of the final works of art—Pollock produces a painting which eventually hangs in a museum; Antoni creates an ephemeral performance, the remainders of which go ignored in critical work, but even if they were noticed they would be dismantled at the end of the finite exhibition timeframe. Antoni’s piece remains only in these photos, whereas the similar photos of Pollock are merely meant to document the making of a tangible permanent object.
Moreover, Pollock’s stance is one of white masculine power, and although Antoni mimics his motions, she employs tools and habits that are generally aligned with feminine oppression. Mopping and hair dying are submissive activities, women’s work that indicates servitude to and suppression by men. Unlike with Antoni, the audience never fetishizes Pollock—it always sees him as the active creator. When a man sensualizes his body, he is a virile genius; when a woman does the same, she is a seductress. It is the same hair on her head that marks Antoni as an object that she also transforms into her tool of creation. Hair plays dual roles that seem to conflict according to common notions of propriety. This incongruity disturbs critics who would prefer to classify Antoni as a feminist, but cannot reconcile her promulgation of (or rather, their insistence on seeing her as) the image of woman as object. Antoni’s reception as a fetish object speaks more to the desires of the audience (and Antoni’s manipulation of that) than it does of Antoni as a subject.
Brief comments regarding Antoni’s performances published in a roundtable discussion, “The Reception of the Sixties,” in October 69, 1994, focused attention on contemporary feminist artists who revisit tropes and techniques of body artists of the 1960s and 70s, rendering Antoni the “poster child” for such discussion. In the conversation, Silvia Kolbowski mourns what she sees as a regressive trend among 1990s artists. “…[T]here is the recent work of someone like Janine Antoni, which I find really problematic in terms of the way it figures a relation to an earlier paradigm: you take something for its pictorial value, with no relation to what it meant historically, and you produce work that critiques it purely on a pictorial level.” Benjamin Buchloh shares in this distress, “I would go one step further. It’s not only in pictorial terms but, precisely, cashing in at this moment in time on the radicality of the art of the 1960s…but not in order to invest the work now with a specific emotionality but to offer a product that seems to satisfy both demands for radical feminist theorization and for a new quality of dramatized objects. What’s happening in Antoni’s work is precisely the spectacularization of feminist theory. And the spectacularization of Fluxus practices.” The discussants continue to lament the waning interest in Lacanian theory, and increased evidence of literalism in contemporary art. Between the lines, they display their collective distaste for early feminist performance artists who expose their attractive bodies, like Carolee Schneeman and Hannah Wilke, and their preference for 1980s feminist artists like Sherrie Levine and Jenny Holzer who attack the male paradigm not with their bodies, but with linguistics—what is deemed masculine terms and forms.
Two issues later, October made this digression its central theme. Questions were posed to 25 artists, writers, and theorists, regarding the apparent feminist artistic trend of bypassing 80s theorizations for a return to 60s and 70s essentialism, and accessibility vs. elitism. The questions were obviously interconnected, as many of the respondents commented, and seemed to promote a dichotomy of art that is either theoretical-elitist-mediated or essentialist-accessible-unmediated. They revealed a snobbish and defensive fear on the part of the October editors, that if theory were preempted, their positions would be obsolete. In light of the previous roundtable comments, the work of Janine Antoni specifically seemed to be the implicit target for these questions, which provoked a number of responses that cited Loving Care or Antoni’s work in general to illustrate their stances on the debate.
Antoni herself admits her debt to art of the 1960s and 70s, while she clearly displays a knowledgeable digestion of the art of the 1980s. She did not bypass or ignore theory-based work from the 1980s, but she chose to respond more thoroughly to other influences in her own work:
The 80s artists, Kruger, Levine, Holzer, Sherman, are historically important and really influenced me. They made it possible for me to do the work I’m doing now. But the irony of 80s is not something I’m interested in. My strategy has more to do with the feminist artists of the 70s—the humor, the process, the emphasis on performance, the intensely visceral quality of their work. It was necessary for the 80s feminists to exist for me to ‘return’ as the 70s. The 80s feminists used a language that was already respected, and they put their content in it, whereas the 70s feminists were much more extreme, and they paid for it by being dismissed.
In general, the 25 respondents defended feminist art of the 1990s, stating that contemporary artists have digested the theoretical textual work prevalent in the 1980s, and have refused to overwork theory lest it become meaningless word play. Instead they have returned to specific issues of gender formation and body consciousness that were raised by the groundbreaking feminist artists in the 1970s. If anything, the respondents seemed to applaud a dismissal of abstract theoretical verbiage and a renewed interest in a politicized attention to gender issues that had effectively raised consciousness in art before. The new generation of artists does not ignore theory, but rather, goes beyond it. They cite Loving Care specifically as an expansion of 80s theory, going beyond the binary understanding of the body as cultural construct or as the “real” feminine essence. Antoni controls her own body, acknowledges its commodification, and revels in its sensuality. Even those who criticize Loving Care do so for pointed rather than generalized representative reasons of larger issues, and disagree with the general premise of the whole essentialism/theory debate.
The premise of this debate attempts to position art and artists into rigid categories. Loving Care provokes controversy because it refuses to neatly adhere to any predigested philosophy. Even while the performance criticizes patriarchal structures, it embraces elements of female objectification. How can this work have it both ways? Is it feminist? Is it regressive? Does it merely envision a simplistic, stereotypical concept of feminine existence? Rather, it acknowledges the contradictions and often opposing forces that sway and mold contemporary sensibilities of and by women. Antoni looks the part of ideal feminine beauty, and proudly flaunts her physical qualities. She wears her hair long and makes art that directly exploits the power of that hair to serve as a sign of beauty. Rather than removing hair to create discrete art objects, Antoni insists on subjectifying hair in the form where it is often objectified. This is a new, usually unseen form of feminism that accepts the complexities of femininity as a social construct and does not necessarily demand a reconceptualization of life free from the bonds of patriarchy. It suggests that as a group of savvy, literary, visually aware intellectuals, the 1990s audience no longer requires a deconstruction of femininity. After all, almost everyone who takes part in Western culture is aware of media manipulation and histories of patriarchy. Artists no longer need to recapitulate those same underlying facts with endless theoretical discourse, but to work within the given circumstances toward new discoveries. Antoni refuses to cut her hair short or otherwise relinquish her right to adopt Western constructed signs of femininity, even while she clearly recognizes the ways in which her hair marks her as a product of and object in attitudes toward women.
Hair specifically provokes confusing and mixed messages about femininity, not only to the audience, but to the artist herself. Hair is part of the package that constitutes an attractive woman. It is one of the quintessential Western male fetishes. A removable and desirable body part, hair offers itself for visual fragmentation and fixation. Using the actual hair on her head—Antoni did not form a paintbrush or mop made of human hair—Antoni troubled the fetishist’s aim. In the fetishist’s ideal scenario, hair alone—passive, objectified, and separated from a willful individual—provides sexual satisfaction. Female essence is necessary, but a woman’s personality is superfluous, unwanted by the male fetishist. When the woman is not conveniently passive she is a nuisance, an obstactle in the fetishist’s path toward his desired object. So when a woman actively re-appropriates this object of fetish, she wields power over men. Man wants to possess the phallus/power; woman owns the phallus/power. And what is a fetish but the embodiment of power? Man attempts to employ the fetish as a safety mechanism, to keep him from recognizing too painful a truth, but he is thwarted by the woman who brandishes the very same weapon for an ulterior motive, to empower herself and reaffirm her subjecthood. When Antoni uses the hair on her head to create art, she reclaims the fetish object and the power to create art. Clearly, very different associations arise when an easily fragmented body part is activated within the complex of the whole body than when it is separated from the body and employed as an object.
Hair, of course, has been invested with the very essence of power throughout history and culture. African fetishes that incorporate hair hold the ability to ward off evil or direct it toward an enemy. It is hair that invests these objects with the capacity to alter fate and give their possessor its magical powers. The story of Samson and Delilah literally equates hair with strength and power. When Delilah betrays Samson and enables his enemies to cut off his hair, his treasured source of virility, he is rendered weak and helpless. Similarly, Medusa’s snaky locks were her source of power. But Perseus did not stop with a simple trim for his enemy; he cut off Medusa’s whole head to disempower her. Each of these stories have been equated with castration anxiety, where the phallus means power, and it can be lost. The removability of hair translates as a perfectly analogous symbol for this fear. Post-Freudian readings of the Medusa myth see straight through the castration anxiety to an underlying fear of women. “But isn’t this fear convenient for them? Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.” It is less frightening to focus on hair as the powerful force than to recognize women as the other, a willful and strong being.
The one who owns the hair is the one in control. This is why fragmentation and fetishization are a safety valve for insecure men. As a fetish, hair no longer gives power to the one who grows it, but to the one who possesses it, either physically, visually, or even just mentally. Whereas man wants to have the phallus, woman is the phallus, because she is the one who traditionally keeps her hair long and noticeable. In this system, women may safely maintain their hair, as long as they do so for the benefit of men. But this logic inevitably leads to power struggles and manipulation. On a more or less conscious level, women recognize that they can control people around them according to how they treat their own hair and bodies. Illustrating this point, Antoni relates a story told to her in her childhood by her grandmother. “Barto [Antoni’s grandfather] told my grandmother that he loved her for her long, beautiful hair. He warned her, however, that if she ever cut her braids, he would no longer love her. This enraged my grandmother. After he had left the house that day, she grabbed her two braids—which reached down to her hips—and snipped them off at the ears. She then tacked them in a crucifix form above their bed.” Antoni’s grandmother was able to assert herself and manipulate her husband without ever touching him, only herself. Was cutting off her hair to spite her husband like cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face? Perhaps. But it was an effective and industrious solution for someone in a position with limited options. And so, the translation of these thoughts into an artistic vision, Loving Care, is indeed complicated and problematic. It is not based in a utopian or revisionist ideal of feminism, matriarchy, or essentialism; nor does it passively submit to patriarchal objectification of women. Antoni is both the subject and the object, the fetishist and and fetish, the master and the muse.
Returning to the audience, whether or not they comprehend the self-reflexive complexities in Antoni’s performance, they nevertheless achieve a certain pleasure watching Antoni perform. “A beautiful piece, I thought: especially the movement of her body, which had an exceptional fragility about it.” The simple pleasure of enjoying the sight of something beautiful is not simple at all, but manipulative and multilayered. Antoni has transformed herself into the multifaceted embodiment of the phallus, the seat of power. The aggressive human desire to possess the phallus explains the media fetishization of Antoni. The comforting ownership of photographing, cropping, and editing views of Antoni’s performance is distressed by the unrelenting reality that it is she who has manipulated these very views. Antoni controls her own actions, including those that make her attractive to the fetishizing eye.
This scheme disconcerts the practiced art critic, who is too well-read and liberated to fall into the trap of objectifying the female form, but finds him or herself doing so when confronted with Antoni in Loving Care. Such art critics would surely resent the artist who manipulates them into such an embarrassing predicament. But nevertheless, even in the previously discussed October 69, this phenomenon reveals itself. In the 18-page article focused on art of the 1960s, aside from two works by Robert Morris (whose exhibition allegedly inspired the conversation), the only artworks illustrated are Loving Care and Chocolate Gnaw (figure 26), 1992, by Janine Antoni. Her work only warranted a short verbal digression, and a negative one at that, but its compelling image took precedence over every other artist and artwork discussed. The choice by October to publish a photograph of Loving Care belies the discussants’ protestations about the work’s value. In classical fetishistic manner, they deny the importance of what upsets them, but cannot resist looking at it all the same. They simultaneously acknowledge and refuse to admit their fear. But what is the psychoanalytic root of the October fetish? I propose that their collective fear stems from a hypertheorized guilt in enjoying the seductive force of beauty, of partaking in the constructed ideal of beauty as a reflection of a given society’s values. They want to transcend their culture’s unquestioning acceptance of visual pleasure and instead enjoy art for intellectual satisfaction, but Loving Care demands to be seen from both an intellectual viewpoint and from culturally constructed notions of feminine beauty, and neither is able to rest comfortably with the work.
Critics exhibited the same difficulty in reconciling Hannah Wilke’s use of her own body as the site of both feminine suppression and sensual pleasure. Wilke, like Antoni, overtly enjoyed exposing her beauty, and made it integral to her work (figure 27). Critics could not accept an attractive woman as a subject, only as object; and for one to use herself as her own object was either narcissistic or self-abusive, or both, but never healthy and rarely a valid justification for serious art. Had she been an unattractive woman, Wilke’s work would have surely been universally celebrated, but then it would have made entirely different points about female identity. Feminists themselves were divided in their reactions to Wilke’s performances—either embarrassed by her exploitation of feminine beauty or supportive of her critical reappropriation of her own qualities. In the following quote, ardent feminist Lucy Lippard reveals her disdain for Wilke’s work as it validates artist as beauty:
I must admit to a personal lack of sympathy with women who have themselves photographed in black stockings, garter belts, boots, with bare breasts, bananas, and coy, come-hither glances….I must say I admire the courage of the women with less than beautiful bodies who defy convention and become particularly vulnerable to cruel criticism, although those women who do happen to be physically well-endowed probably come in for more punishment in the long run…. [Hannah Wilke] has been making erotic art with vaginal imagery for over a decade, and since the women’s movement, has begun to do performances in conjunction with her sculpture, but her own confusion of her roles as beautiful woman and artist, as flirt and feminist, has resulted at times in politically ambiguous manifestations that have exposed her to criticism on a personal as well as on an artistic level.
What Lippard objects to, along with the October editors, is complexity. Lippard also collapses the artist and her reputation with her art and representation. Art that equally subscribes to more than one, often opposing ideal, is incomprehensible to a simplistic reading, and therefore bad art.
Both the work of Antoni and Wilke stand in opposition to the work of an artist like Yves Klein, who used women’s bodies as art and to make art (figure 28). His pieces in which he painted a woman with his signature International Klein Blue color and then dragged her across a canvas, declaring the blue smears his final work, are similar to Loving Care, which also applies pigment to a woman and then uses her body as the brush to transfer the pigment to another surface. The obvious and crucial difference is that Klein is the artist who objectifies another human being whereas Antoni is the artist who remains the subject throughout her work. Rachel Lachowicz, who is often paired with Antoni for their contemporary rethinkings of feminism, differently reinterprets artistic/phallic privilege in her re-enactments of Klein’s work. In Red Not Blue, 1992, Lachowicz reverses Klein’s prescribed gender roles. Lachowicz, in a cocktail dress instead of Klein’s tuxedo, creates seminal markings from her male, rather than female models/brushes, using red lipstick in place of blue paint for pigment. Lachowicz’s straightforward and humorous anti-enactment of Klein’s work is simpler than Antoni’s conflation of roles in her own performance. Lachowicz appropriates the active male genius role and renders the object masculine. Antoni likewise assumes the position of artist/creator/genius, but also poses as model and object, working within and against the paternalistic art world in a complex system of relations and self-reflection. Antoni consciously chose both Klein and Pollock as abstract expressionist precedents on which to comment in her performance. Each of these white male artists represent the macho mystique prevalent in the art world, the same artistic bias that sees artmaking as an aggressive masculine activity, and excludes women from its historical trajectory. Antoni did not obscure her referents, but complicated the similarities and differences between their and her work to enable multiple interpretations. I disagree with those critics who would argue that Loving Care is confused—complicated, yes, as it understands the loaded and conflicting associations with hair and femininity.
Also pertinent to this entire inquiry of hair as a subject in art are the similarities between Loving Care and David Hammons’s early body prints from the 1970s (figures 15–16). Both Hammons and Antoni use their own bodies to apply pigment to a surface. Whereas each of them use hair in their art, Hammons separates the two elements—his body and hair do not appear in the same works. Both are American artists, but Hammons is a black man in Harlem, whereas Antoni is a white woman from the Bahamas who lives in New York. Hammons’s body prints date from the 1970s, although his hair art spans approximately the past 25 years, whereas Antoni’s work has a distinct 1990s feel that is retrospective to the 1970s.
The main difference between Antoni’s and Hammons’s work lies in their reception. Unlike the controversy surrounding Loving Care, Hammons suffered no criticism of his manipulation of his own body to create images. The issue-oriented subject matter of these body prints, such as Injustice Case, 1970, were pointedly confrontational and controversial, but Hammons’s method of forming these images only generated admiration and praise. To create the work, Hammons pressed his greased body against paper and then applied pigment to his markings. As with Pollock, photographs of Hammons at work supposedly only serve to document his technique, not to constitute the final work of art. Hammons’s bodily manipulations result in a permanent work of art that is a saleable commodity, while Antoni’s performance is her work, and does not produse any saleable product.
Until the art world’s recent “rediscovery” of Hammons, his body prints were his most commercially successful venture. Still now, when art surveys include any one piece by Hammons, they tend to choose one of his body prints, even though he abandoned that technique long ago. Since the early 1970s, his work has turned away from art as a commodity, and instead values cheap, ubiquitous substances that are generally ephemeral and uncollectable. In contrast to his profitable body prints, Hammons’s work with hair has been less critically acknowledged and consumed by dealers. The advent of his hair art marked Hammons’s simultaneous disappearance from the art world. Despite his proven saleability with the early body prints, Hammons was no longer a hot commodity when he marketed art made from black hair.
Why would Antoni’s hair/body piece generate such criticism and attention, whereas Hammons’s hair goes virtually ignored and his body work incites universal praise? As I have discussed, Antoni attracts attention with her feminine physical beauty, and engenders confusion through her focus on hair, a generally fetishized object of female narcissism and oppression. Hammons, on the other hand, an African American man, does not embody seductive beauty for the primarily white privileged audience, but rather, inspires fear and distrust, guilt and anxiety. Making political images from his body on a piece of paper fits Hammons safely into the art audience’s controllable environment. But creating ambiguous objects constructed of an actual black person’s hair confronts the audience with more reality than is comfortable. Antoni’s hair is desired; Hammons’s hair disgusts and confounds. The usually affluent, white viewer sees white feminine hair as passive—it is desired by others; while black masculine hair is active—it threatens with its difference. For the white audience, it is frightening and disconcerting to confront active black art, which explains the general dismissal of Hammons’s hair pieces. Much more comfortable is his passively controllable, frameable, and hangable body print.
Saying that the audience sees Antoni’s work as passive and feminine does not imply that it is weak or ineffective. Like Antoni’s anecdote about her grandmother, Loving Care manipulates an unfavorable set of circumstances to an unexpected advantage. The piece appropriates the fetish, destabilizes the gaze, and empowers and subjectifies feminine beauty. By exploiting the fetish and convoluting it to ulterior purposes, Loving Care tackles the dominant systems of gender relations and artmaking from the inside out. Naomi Schor recounts the arguments advocating female fetishism: “In Kofman’s Derridean reading of Freud, female fetishism is not so much, if at all, a perversion, rather a strategy designed to turn the so-called ‘riddle of femininity’ to women’s account.” But she ends her investigation with the nagging fear that female fetishism may really be an old misogynistic concept with new feminist packaging. “What if the appropriation of fetishism—a sort of ‘perversion-theft,’ if you will—were in fact only the latest and most subtle form of ‘penis-envy’? At the very least a certain unease resulting from the continued use of the term fetishism, with its constellation of misogynistic connotations, must be acknowledged.”
In a separate essay, Schor addresses controversial issues surrounding Loving Care head on. She aligns the elite postmodern theoretical intellectualism favored by October with irony and fetishism, and poses it against pathos, literalism, immediacy, and pastiche. Both irony and fetishism negate and preserve a troubling reality, and therefore tend to walk hand in hand, speaking in each other’s languages. The confusion with Loving Care, then, is that while it addresses fetishism, it allegedly stands on the literalism-immediacy side of the equation. It separates fetishism from irony, and disconcerts the comfort of sublation implicit in the ironist/fetishist’s tactics. Schor calls for a feminist division between the two concepts, but expects and prefers an adoption of irony, not fetishism. “I fear that until irony is divorced from fetishism, the risk of irony must be taken with extreme care lest the feminist ironist find herself playing straight into the hands of the male fetishist from whose perverse images of women she sets out to distance herself.”
By exploring fetishism and holding irony as a secondary priority (I would not say that Antoni abandons irony, nor that her work is literal, despite the accusations by October), Antoni does risk her own objectification and fetishization. It is the tension between the permission and refusal to play into the fetishizing eye that continually piques interest in her work. Antoni needles at an insecure and changing identity of femininity, and pushes it in several directions at once. Her perceptive focus on hair as a symbol of constructed femininity offers a common feature already laden with multivalent connotations to work with. Antoni’s hair provokes attraction, admiration, and anxiety. The overt implications of Loving Care belie the complex and subtle ways in which hair is woven through our culture as a defining element of femininity.
Antoni’s first United States public performance of Loving Care occured in 1996 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, 23 years after Mierle Ukeles presented Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance (figure 29), 1973, at the same venue. This comparison is critical, as each offers alternative views of women compulsively mopping. Whereas Ukeles cleans, Antoni dirties. Ukeles’s actions—compulsively mopping, dusting, sweeping the galleries—were intended to reveal the kind of daily necessary chores generally performed by women that make public and private spaces run smoothly, but are themselves usually kept hidden. Like Loving Care, which also publicly displays an otherwise private female ritual, Hartford Wash provokes in the viewer a disturbing sense of intrusion. But viewers of Loving Care commonly experience voyeuristic shame whereas Ukeles’s performance evokes sympathetic guilt. Ukeles performs as the mother—quietly and modestly cleaning up after others. In fact, her focus on acts of cleaning and maintenance were initially inspired by her own motherhood. Antoni, on the other hand, is sensual, erotic, untamed, and like the floor she paints, dirty.
The two artists perform similar actions, but reactions to them vary with the focus on hair. Hair identifies Antoni as a sexual feminine object of desire. Her attention to feminine pastimes—preening and cleaning—complicates her role as woman and artist. No one has ever argued whether Ukeles is a feminist—her work has commonly been accepted as an honoring ritual for too-often unthanked workers. But Antoni, because she exploits feminine beauty in her work, which perhaps historically has been too revered to warrant an respectful unveiling, triggers confusion. She consciously chooses hair as a signifier for feminine beauty for the focus of her performance. The diverse and complicated reactions surrounding Loving Care exemplify the multivalent associations derived from a beautiful head of hair in the context of the art world.
The Physicality of Disembodied Hair:
Mona Hatoum’s Recollection
Hair that grows on the human head or body becomes a foreign substance when removed from the person. While on the head, hair indicates health, virility, and attractiveness; but after it is shed, a stray hair instantly transforms into filth, a sign of decay. On its own, a singular hair is like a bug—small and harmless, but dirty and disgusting and indicative of an army more just like it. Bugs and hair both seem so fragile and delicate, but are in fact quite hearty and resilient. Insects are among the oldest and most adaptable life forms; hair is as indestructible as bone or wood. Both seem to have an insidious quality, and produce similar reactions of disgust when found in food or piled in the corners of rooms. But whereas bugs generate almost universal annoyance or repulsion, hair can be the source of either pleasure or disgust depending on circumstances.
Nevertheless, the world abounds with insect collectors. Somehow, those repulsive little creatures gain respectability when neatly displayed in an orderly, scientific vitrine. Why are there not as many hair collectors, then? Mona Hatoum is a hair collector who displays her own home-grown specimens in her installation Recollection (figures 30–33), 1995.
Recollection sparsely fills a room with hundreds of delicate, airy balls of hair. Any breeze generated by viewers’ movements scatters the hair balls into new currents. They gather in corners, they stray beyond the boundaries of the designated installation space, they collect at the viewer’s feet. As a group they violate the order of the exhibition space, and yet individually they are minimal, compact, and regular in form.
From the ceiling hangs an almost imperceptible curtain of single strands of hair. At regular five-inch intervals, individual hairs tied together reach a length that stretches from the rafters almost to the floor. Their lightness renders them ethereal, and they surprise unsuspecting viewers by brushing against their faces or catching in their mouths. As with the hair balls, their fragile delicacy disrupts the perception of their symmetrical regularity. The strands seem randomly distributed, although insistently unavoidable to the viewer’s touch.
The hair balls and strands exist in a seemingly organic formation that might suggest growth or decay, and belies their placement by human hands. They seem to have materialized on their own like cobwebs infesting an abandoned building. This too would suggest human absence, but the very materiality of hair insists on human presence. Simultaneously, Hatoum’s piece denies and recalls human existence. What categorically asserts human creation are the two more industrial, less “natural,” elements of the installation.
On a table in a corner of the room sits a weaving loom prepared with strands of human hair as its fabric. The warp and weft pulled tight and smooth, the hair submits to a grid of human-imposed geometry. But at the ends, unwoven, the hair curls according to its natural texture. Nearby, a used bar of soap is infested with stray pubic hair; not randomly caked in as we all hate to find it, but deliberately plugged at the roots in a neat straight line as in a transplant. These objects are no more carefully organized or constructed than the hair balls and hanging strands, but more readily indicate the intention with which they were created. This evidence of intention reflects back on the balls and strands, reminding the viewer that they too were designed and placed by a person.
In modern Western culture, it would seem that only someone with an obsessive nature would have the patience and endurance to painstakingly collect and organize hair into such precise arrangements. Hair is not a socially acceptable artistic medium like paint or wood which warrants such attention. Rather, disembodied hair is usually considered waste and Hatoum’s work might suggest an unhealthy compulsion to some. According to hair propaganda and common practice, hair is only deserving of attention while part of the human body—once removed, it immediately loses its value and should be discarded. (Then again, some people collect insects.) Mona Hatoum’s collection and installation of her own hair disrupts notions of the boundaries of the self, and broadens the definition of artistic medium.
Hatoum began collecting her own hair as if by chance; she describes being so taken with the tactile sensation of her hair left in a bathtub drain that she could not part with it.
The hair balls that ended up in Recollection were collected over a period of six years. I made one accidentally when I was staying at a friend’s place in Cardiff in 1989…It was the hair that came off my head in the bath. I didn’t want to leave it behind, so I picked it up and was playing with it absentmindedly, rolling it in my hands. It was a perfect ball, very cocoon-like. It was beautiful. I decided to collect them without any specific idea of what I would do with them.
Thus, it was the haptic experience of her disembodied hair and not the numerous intangible associations that it inspires that initially attracted Hatoum to it as an artistic medium. Her eventual employment of the medium reveals Hatoum’s deep connection and understanding of hair’s physical qualities. The hair in Recollection is not restricted, but rather, re-formed in ways to best exploit its natural tendencies. Hair shapes the installation, always testing the artist’s imposition of order.
Recollection provides an opportunity to discuss a number of the pertinent issues raised by hair. As it does not overtly engage any specific issue, but rather speaks foremost to the actual physical properties of hair, Recollection may be addressed from any number of theoretical stances. I wish to deeply analyze the ways in which it exploits the physical nature of hair, and follow those strands along with discussions of recurrent issues raised in Hatoum’s oeuvre to suggest alternate modes of interpreting the work as a whole, thereby better understanding the potentialities of hair in an art context.
A Palestinian born in Beirut, Hatoum was in London when war broke out in Lebanon in 1975. Forced to stay in England, Hatoum enrolled in art school and began creating works addressing themes of isolation, imprisonment, loneliness, and war. As an outsider in a Western society, Hatoum has equated her situation with that of other marginalized groups such as the British black community, who shares with her a pervasive awareness of being considered the Other by the majority of their society. Hatoum admires and identifies with the black struggle to maintain solidarity in an intolerant community.
The black struggle became more diversified once the basic issues were established. And blackness here is not to do with the colour of your skin but a political stance. In the early 1980s I don’t think I saw my practice as part of the black struggle, I was doing my own thing…I was basically trying to deal with an environment that I had experienced as hostile and intolerant and eventually those feelings began to pervade the work—and still do.
Although African American, not British, David Hammons provides such an example of finding strength in his own minority community while interacting with an often hostile majority. His hair art aggravates boundaries of difference and exclusion with wry wit and serious messages. When clearly addressing a white audience, Hammons obstinately and perversely reveals the outsider status of his own black community. Doing so, his work takes on political import that teases out social inequities normally combed over by the white majority. Hatoum likewise approaches artmaking from the perspective of an outsider even in her own home. In Recollection, Hatoum’s hair might represent the isolation of one person. Her hair infests the room as if searching for others like itself, but only meets more of its own kind. Its interactions with viewers provoke disgusted fascination, but an irritation, never inclusion. Both Hatoum and Hammons employ hair as a mark of difference, a physical boundary that separates them from the majority of their environments.
The fragmentation and estrangement one’s own body reappears throughout Hatoum’s installations and performances. Hair provides an ideal means to explore this theme, as it is painlessly removed, constantly renewing itself, and comes pre-invested with issues of fetishism, filth, and femininity. In one of her most renowned works, Corps Etranger/Foreign Body (figures 34–35), 1994, Hatoum seeks to demystify the body while blurring the boundaries between the body and its surroundings. The piece involves an endoscopic video of Hatoum from the inside and out, entering each of her orifices and exploring the visceral pathways of her body. Viewers enter the round video enclosure through two narrow entrances to see or walk across the circular projection of Hatoum’s body on the floor. As the camera enters and emerges from each of her orifices, differently textured and immediately recognizable types of hair mark the boundaries between inside and outside. The sounds of the human heartbeat and breathing pervades the installation. Advanced medical technology provides a super-human eye with which to view the body, separating what seems “natural” in daily life from what seems garish and artificial in its microscopic emphasis on “nature.” The body, which should be familiar to all, seems grossly alien under such a minute examination. Hatoum’s own body becomes the foreign body through dissociation, like a stray hair.
Hatoum effects the same jarring dissociation from the human body with Recollection as she does with Foreign Body. In both installations, aspects of our own corporeality are examined so closely that they become unfamiliar and disturbing. Individual parts, investigated separately and not comprising the whole body, seem to live with their own self-generated energy. Hatoum’s innards seen through endoscopics and pulsating on the floor are like alien creatures; her hair given free reign of a room unto itself becomes an infestation of small pests. The knowledge that these are both really human makes such associations all the more disturbing.
The foreign body references not only Hatoum to herself, but also the sensation of being a stranger in a foreign land. The notion of self-alienation resonates with Hatoum’s Palestinian heritage and separation from her family. For Hatoum, the concept of dislocation encompasses the Other both intimately on a personal physical level, and broadly as an exotic individual interacting in a foreign community.
At the same time, it must be mentioned that although she exhibits an awareness of outsider status and alienation, Hatoum’s disembodied hair paradoxically demonstrates a sense of holistic completeness on a personal level. Although in both Recollection and Foreign Body Hatoum aggravates the tension between corporeal familiarity and dissociation, she comfortably explores her own body’s boundaries and reveals a healthy curiosity about its workings. Hatoum brings from her native home a sense of connection between the physical and spiritual worlds, between body and mind. She states that in Western society, people are often unfamiliar with their own bodies, and she seeks to return the physical self to art.
The first thing I noticed when I came [to London] was how divorced people were from their bodies…I have always been dissatisfied with work that just appeals to your intellect and does not actually involve you in a physical way. For me, the embodiment of an artwork is within the physical realm; the body is the axis of our perceptions, so how can art afford not take that as a starting point? We relate to the world through our senses. You first experience an artwork physically. I like the work to operate on both sensual and intellectual levels. Meanings, connotations, and associations come after the initial physical experience as your imagination, intellect, psyche are fired off by what you’ve seen.
In pieces like Recollection and Foreign Body, Hatoum challenges her viewers’ familiarity and comfort with their own human body. The insistence on visualizing the body’s most mysterious realities may repulse or disturb the viewer, but it is not intended to inure the viewer to such sights. The body, its products, and its inner workings continue to fascinate both the artist and the viewer, and Hatoum explores this curiosity with sensitivity to the nuances of human material, and may in fact ultimately produce a positive response in the viewer.
It is because of this positive and healthy curiosity about the workings of the human body that popular theories of abjection or l’informe will never completely describe Hatoum’s hair art. Since the late 1980s–early 1990s, writers who discuss art made from human detritus generally speak of it in terms of abjection. Indeed, as per Julia Kristeva’s definition of abjection, Recollection does fall into the category of “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” But more often, the abject implies sorrow for human frailty and weakness; abjection is a wretched condition. In Rosalind Krauss’s reading of Georges Bataille, abjection is the miserable and the disgusting, “a force that strips the laboring masses of their human dignity and reproduces them as dehumanized social waste…” Recollection is more complex than that definition allows. In so many recent articles, books, and reviews, the term “abjection” is thrown around without a clear explanation of what the writer intends to communicate. Often I wonder whether most writers themselves fully understand the nuances of abjection. The abject is a catch phrase that identifies the contemporary avant-garde without describing it. Regardless, any worthwhile work of art deserves to be analyzed more fully than as an example of either ambiguity or disgust.
Georges Bataille’s theory of l’informe, as elaborated by Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois in their 1996 exhibition of the same name, better addresses the multivalent elements that comprise Recollection, but perhaps only because l’informe is a less commonly used term than abjection, with a broader, more ambivalent and inclusive definition. The theory encompasses base materialism, horizontality, and rhythm, all of which are manifested in Hatoum’s installation. Hair is a base material that is related to scatological art by its removal from the body as waste. It succumbs to gravity, stray balls of it moving along the floor and hanging strands softly dissecting the vertical space, in opposition to traditional vertical art: paintings or upright sculptures. The size and spacing of the hairy elements in Recollection throb with a rhythmic sexual energy, or pulse, as it is called according to the language of l’informe.
In her essay on Recollection, Catherine de Zegher uses the terminology common to discussions of abject art and l’informe. Unfortunately, she fails to substantiate her wide vocabulary with reasoned explanations that carry her readers from description to conclusion. After speaking about the employment of bassesse and bas matérilisme (lowness and base materialism, but the French terms imply a greater intellectualism) in Recollection, de Zegher states that “the hair gets to you….At that moment all progress in space is coupled with regression; hair invokes contradictory reactions from fascination to abjection…” Firstly, abjection is less a reaction than a state of being. Secondly, it generally involves lurid fascination rather than moral opposition. Nevertheless, I am impressed with her clever inclusion of the psychoanalytic concept of regression. All in one sentence! I include this quote because it is representative of the kind of writing found on trendy concepts like l’informe and the abject—vague, underdeveloped, and confused. Moreover, de Zegher curated the show that originally commissioned Recollection, so it should follow that she would deeply understand the work and her thoughts on the subject would be worthwhile for elucidation.
As a proponent of abjection and l’informe, de Zegher indicates that Hatoum’s installation derives its strenght from its ability to surpass minimalistic boundaries. Here, she does demonstrate an understanding of a prevalent theme in both theoretical discourses, illustrating how these types of art differ from and disrupt traditionally accepted monumental art forms, particularly minimalism. The abject and l’informe are defined in contrast to such work, by their refusal to obey the clean, straight, orderly geometry of minimalism. “Because order always indicates limitation, disorder has by implication limitless potential for patterning.” The untamed ends of the otherwise geometric weaving loom or the tangled appearance of the systematically hung hair strands clearly demonstrate how pattern and discord co-exist in Recollection.
Yet, much of Hatoum’s oeuvre shares common features with minimalism. Her sculptural installations usually reveal a preference for hard-edged materials, rigid angles, and austere simplicity in form. The softness and delicacy found in Recollection is really a departure from the shapes and textures found in her other works, although her performances have often employed base materials. But although much of her work appears in minimalistic forms, it always relates to the human body through its proportions and suggestions of loneliness, exile, brutality, or other related subjects. Describing her work, Hatoum states that, “[u]nlike minimal objects, they are not self-referential.” Her work is never abstract; it is never only about its form—which, despite her comment, is not unlike certain minimalist works. Richard Artschwager created a box formed of hair in 1969 (figure 36) that easily could be described in the terminology of abject art or l’informe rather than alongside the clean lines and boxes of artists like Donald Judd or Carl Andre, where formalist theory traditionally situates it. The problem with these theories, and what makes them imperfect in applying to works like Recollection, is that their means for discussing recurring themes in art reveals more about art historical methodology than about the works themselves. Art theory, like all theories, conforms to the expectations of its culture. Today it is fashionable to understand hair art in terms of ambiguity or disgust, while thirty years ago hair art could acceptably fit in with the ideals of minimalism.
Another popular discourse, fetishism is inevitable in any current discussion of hair. As a removable, gendered part of the body, hair is a convenient object of displaced sexual attention, and has been recognized as such since the publication of Freud’s essay on fetishism in 1927. De Zegher, as smitten with postmodern interpretations of fetishism as she is with abjection and l’informe, rhapsodizes over Hatoum’s use of the fetishized object. “At once fetishized (her own splitting hairs stand in for the lost/transitional object—what Freud called the ‘longed-for sight of the female member’) and fetishist (as contemplating subject no longer ‘split’ by the gaze of a male Other), the artist examines in an ambivalent way the notion of disavowal, or the urge to distance oneself from the sight and knowledge of difference.” De Zegher aligns herself with a Lacanian de-phallocentric notion of the fetish—that the fetish is not a stand-in for the phallus, but rather for any desired object. However, she never suggests what the hair in this case replaces. She is so enamored of fetish theory , and has so internalized that hair must always be a fetish object, that she neglects to defend whether hair is a fetish, or replacement object, in the specific case of Recollection.
De Zegher contrasts Hatoum’s Recollection with Janine Antoni’s Loving Care (figures 21–24) on the basis of the phallocentric fetish object. She states that Antoni’s performance “can only be read as a disguised transgressive act, or a reductive, iconographic transposition of the legacy of art from the 1960s to the 1990s. Ironizing the machismo of action painting, Antoni’s hair-dye performance nevertheless re-phallicizes the fetish (female hair) and alludes, unlike Recollection, to the notion of victimhood.” This simplistic reading ignores the subtleties and associations raised in Loving Care, which I already discussed in Chapter 3, “Hair, Fetishism, and Feminism: Janine Antoni’s Loving Care.”
A simplistic, trendy understanding of the fetish is insufficient to unravel the complexities of Recollection. Hair does not always necessarily equal fetish, and when or if it does, the type of fetish indicated is not necessarily the Freudian or Lacanian version as a misplaced object of sexuality. Another, pre-psychoanalytic, concept of the fetish better applies to Hatoum’s installation. Recollection has fetishistic qualities, not in the Freudian or Lacanian displacement sense, but in powerful, mystical, or ritualistic way. Generally applied to non-Western art, the fetish can also mean a talisman of power that protects its owner. Rather than replacing a missing object, the primitive fetish provides in its original form—not as a replacement—magical power. That is, it creates a new intangible force; it does not imitate an absent object. It does, however, incorporate ingredients from absent sources of strength and fear, such as human or animal hair and teeth. Hair is symbolic and suggestive of the human body, feminized in this context, but not necessarily standing in for what is lacking; more of a ghost of what has been, and whose essence still remains. The hair in Recollection is not a replacement, but an emblem of power and protection. It depicts a feminine self-celebration, as its intended context illustrates.
Recollection was originally commissioned for the exhibition series “Inside the Visible. Begin the Beguine in Flanders,” organized by Catherine de Zegher for the Kanaal Art Foundation in Kortrijk, Belgium. It was installed in an old Belgian béguinage, which is similar in practice to a convent, where women spent their days praying, writing, and making lacework. Later it was reinstalled as part of the exhibition “Inside the Visible: an elliptical traverse of twentieth-century art in, of, and from the feminine,” organized by Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Both feminist contexts instill focused meaning into the work.
Obviously, site-specific installations and performances are complicated to move because any new combination of surroundings alter the essence of the work. Recollection was in part inspired by the Béguinage Saint-Elizabeth for both its architectural qualities and its history as a house for devoted women. A sense of femininity and feminism infiltrates the creation and reception of the installation. In these surroundings, hair is understood specifically as women’s hair. Even after its initial installation, as part of the feminist “Inside the Visible” group, Recollection still partakes of a sisterhood that breathes strong associations into the piece. It is empowered by its feminine environment, and unabashedly proclaims its soft strength as a statement on feminine power.
At the same time, Recollection recalls the history of female oppression. The weaving loom especially, but all of the methodical placement and obvious care and attention to detail, signify women’s work. They echo the years of lacemaking by the béguines who inhabited the space for so long. In that echo is the reminder that the béguines were one group of many women throughout history who were marginalized by society by their lack of value—they often came from poor families, the unmarriageable younger daughters with no prospects other than to exist for the sake of others. Not even sanctified with the identifiable badge of Christianity, the béguines were not nuns but chaste women joined together to form a safe haven from external forces. Their quiet sisterhood was a creative option, invented in the 13th century to offer respectable lives despite unfavorable conditions.
The calm of the soft textures, coupled with the maddening insistence of the hair to infiltrate every space, mirrors the monotonously peaceful existence of the stifled béguines, or any unliberated women, such as the quintessential housewife. The hair is like dust that settles every day, soft and barely noticeable, but as it inevitably accumulates it becomes more insidious and aggravating. Cleaning is traditionally women’s work, so it is all the more enraging that this hair is feminine waste resulting from female activity. The woman is a self-contained cycle of female chores—she preens and cleans, preens and cleans. With equal emphasis on the meticulous order of grooming and the chaotic disarray of entropic growth, Recollection halts the process midway and offers a glimpse of surrender to this feminine existence, and the result is a beautiful stasis. From associations of female servitude and oppression comes a celebration of femininity.
These ambivalent connotations of hair makes Recollection a powerful fetish piece in the primitive sense. It employs a mysteriously ambiguous substance to great effect, both highlighting a source of stress—the need raised by hair maintenance for perpetual care both to the self and the domestic space—and simultaneously recognizing its restorative powers—the pride and pleasure derived from one’s own hair. Hair symbolizes both the endurance and the pleasure capable in women, in a compact, removable form. The hair represents Hatoum specifically, but women in general, and its strength and resiliency reflect back on its owners. The delicacy and scariness coexistent in the hair in Recollection imbue women with the same powers. In that way, hair is a talisman, a fetish of feminism. Women can find frightening force in their fragile demeanors.
Beyond these feminist contexts, Recollection undeniably inquires to all humanity the conditions of mortality. Hair is an enduring substance that lasts beyond death, as permanent as bone. Its existence without the support of the body exposes the expendability of life while providing a means for immortality. Certainly some of the discomfort engendered by this installation is derived from the loss of familiarity with hair upon its removal, coupled with the knowledge that hair is more durable than life itself. No longer part of the human, hair is super-human. A person’s disassociation from hair, both literally and figuratively, implies a relinquishing of life. Recollection nags at this mortal fear.
Such associations make hair fecund with meaning when formed into memento mori (figure 4). Many Victorian trinkets and jewelry were woven by women from the hair of their departed and served as permanent reminders of their lost loves or family. Hair, such a lavished sign of health and virility in life, also serves as a symbol of mortality. Memento mori are tokens of a specific person’s death, reminders of the permanence and inevitability of death. “Hair jewelry was made and worn as a way to express pain, not to assist in the transformation of grief.” While they incorporate bits of the deceased, memento mori could not replace any person. Rather, they recall an absence and a longing, and acknowledge, if not assuage, fear.
As a specifically feminine fetish object, the memento mori provides a focus to accept what is frightening and incomprehensible. In her essay “Splitting Hairs: Female Fetishism and Postpartum Sentimentality in Maupassant’s Fiction,” Emily Apter relates Maupassant’s story, “Une Veuve,” in which an old woman wears a memento mori as her eroticized mourning ritual. She describes the fin de siècle female fanaticism for collecting hair as indications of both maternal obsession and death obsession. Through attention to children’s hair relics, the Victorian woman keeps herself perpetually the indulgent mother and martyr. She always memorializes her deceased child, thereby ever remaining the mother and keeper of immortality. In this way, the memento mori is a female fetish memorializing loss, but not castration.
As Freud would have it, the child is a woman’s means of creating her own phallus. Likewise, feces as a product generated from but separated from the body—much in the same way that hair exists—also provides an alternate phallus for the deficient woman. Bodily products—be they child, feces, or hair—offer compensatory objects of fixation for the bereft woman. By wearing her child, her child’s hair, the Victorian woman resists acknowledging the loss of her child, that is, her phallus. Considering this Freudian interpretation, the memento mori is precisely a female fetish that simultaneously affirms and denies castration anxiety.
The memento mori allows several powerful associations at once—motherhood, creator of an alternate phallus, and immortality. Recollection, even in its title, acknowledges the remembrance associated with hair. The factors of discomfort and disassociation from the hair, that it is simultaneously human and alien, and its power as a fetish object, contribute to its use as a token of mortality. It reminds us of human commonalties, but implicit in hair loss is age, weakness, and decay. A memento mori is both a concession to mortality and an attempt to achieve immortality by commemorating the departed with an abiding monument.
But in the case of Recollection, there is no loss of a child. Recollection is unusual in that it commemorates a living person, the same one who grew, collected, and crafted the hair piece. This memento mori remembers its own creator, still alive and able to interact with her own self-made fetish. It is instead a proscriptive fetish to ward off future loss. It is an insurance policy banking on personal immortality through memory.
Having made her own memento mori, Hatoum places herself in the awkward position of seeing her own death. Her hair stands in for herself, rendering Hatoum the person and artist superfluous. Recollection takes its life from Hatoum’s growth of hair, but no longer requires Hatoum to sustain it. The artist is at once present and unnecessary in her creation. In interview, Janine Antoni questioned Hatoum about Foreign Body, but they could just as well have been discussing Recollection, “In the end, was it important that it was your body?” Hatoum responded, “It had to be my body.” Both pieces are the artist’s searches for immortality, self-investigatory offerings of love and invasion.
Hatoum’s investigation of the physicality of hair begs the discussion of many issues, perhaps because it speaks so eloquently of mortality, the inevitable condition of human existence. The piece is at once commemorative, protective, and frightening. Its fragmentation renders the hair eerily un-human, and yet it unmistakably represents the entire human essence. Recollection thoroughly exploits the fear that disembodied hair instills. Hair will outlive you, hair is indestructible, hair is annoying—hair is like bugs. Hair is your personal souvenir that you scatter everywhere you go to mark your territory, but as you lose it, you lose the life it represents. Hair loss is a sign of decay, and Recollection is its monument.
Hair is difficult to control. It’s always frizzing or curling in the wrong direction or hanging unevenly. You have to use lots of hairspray if you want it to conform to your vision, but then it becomes stiff and brittle—you can’t comb through it or even run your fingers through it. A little product is helpful—I myself am quite fond of pomade and some gel or mousse, perhaps. Just enough to tame my mass of curls into some semblance of order rather than the huge, wild mane it would become if I left it alone.
I’ve discovered quite the same phenomenon with this academic investigation of hair. It’s still hard to control, even when it’s only on paper. If too much hairspray is applied, under the name of abjection or psychoanalysis or some other notion, hair loses its flexibility and natural beauty. It can only lay stiffly in one direction, when its inclination is to fly away, get caught in the wind, and form knots and tangles. But if no product is used at all, the hair is completely unmanageable and the only possible result is a bad hair day. As with the hair on my own head, I’ve chosen to use a variety of hair products in this thesis, sparingly, and according to the styles they best enable.
After shampooing and rinsing well, I massaged in a creamy leave-in conditioner throughout the hair under the general product name of visual and cultural discourse. I applied special grooming products as required. African American hair naturally tends to be relatively dry and coarse, so I added a thick pomade of post-colonial theory and racial studies to David Hammons’s hair pieces—not so much to make the hair greasy, but enough to keep the curls crisp even in humid weather. Janine Antoni’s hair is long and dyed, so the ends need extra conditioning while the roots require added volume. I kept her hair soft, strong, and bouncy with a generous mixture of fetish theory and feminism and an all-over final spritz aimed at her hair’s critical reception. Arab hair like Mona Hatoum’s is usually thick and strong, so I only added precise swipes of maximum hold gel in the form of fetish theory for style and definition. Her hair needed an extra rinsing to remove residue and buildup from previous overuse of abjection and l’informe. I deliberately avoided hairspray for my three clients—I wanted to leave their hair free to push and transcend boundaries.
David Hammons’s hair pieces are ironic reminders of black pride in white-ruled America. They offer comforts to a marginalized community while questioning its limitations. His kinky hair curls back and forth among black and white, tickling and irritating each in the process. Janine Antoni’s Loving Care plays with different facets of the fetish, but finally serves as a talisman of feminist power by reclaiming and reactivating a typical site for male fetish. Her hair grows against the boundaries between feminism and femininity, creating a tension between the desires to play both subject and object at once. Mona Hatoum’s Recollection troubles the liminal stages between the body, what it produces, and its surroundings; creating a disturbing dissociation from the self. Meanwhile, the hair is also its fetish that protects against the fears of mortality and oppression. Each of these cases investigates the intertwined boundary and fetish issues of power and fear, pride and oppression.
Hair infiltrates our lives beyond personal grooming. As I argued in this thesis, it influences our identities and relations in terms of race, gender, and body consciousness. Although I separated these issues and the artists who work with them into chapters, I intended to demonstrate that hair braids these themes together with recurring motifs and strategies. Namely, artists use hair as a protective fetish in their work that tests boundaries.
When I speak of the fetish, I hope that I have made clear that I do not necessarily wish to indicate a sexual or Freudian fetish, although that is the kind most commonly connoted. The hair pieces I discussed do not require sexual interpretations except where it is appropriate. However, the concept of fetish is central to this entire thesis, as it describes a discrete object that is empowered to identify and protect states of transition.
Neither does hair fit simply into preconceived notions of l’informe or abjection, despite being a sometimes alienated bodily substance. Nor is hair like scatological art because it is not simply waste—it is a once-prized piece of the self gone obsolete. Hair differs from other body art in that it is a removable body part that is almost not human. Hair does not automatically signify any one thing. It can be friendly or frightening, sexual or clinical, desirable or repellant. Sometimes it is all of those at once, and more.
Each of the artists I investigated has created other hairy works that I did not discuss in the body of this thesis. David Hammons’s hair objects are countless, and I only examined a select few of them. Generally his hair pieces employ black hair as a raw material with unique physical properties, avoiding a direct association of hair as a part of the human body (figures 37–39). I chose the pieces that best highlight his ironic sense of humor and race consciousness. From around the same period as her first performance of Loving Care, Janine Antoni’s Deficit (figure 40), 1991, and Butterfly Kisses (figure 41), 1992, likewise penetrate themes of feminism, fetishism, and interactions between the visual worlds of artmaking and popular culture. In Deficit, Antoni laid a disembodied long hair braid across an office cubicle covered in blue striped oxford cloth—the fetishized feminine feature pervades in a masculine environment. For Butterfly Kisses, Antoni covered her lashes with CoverGirl Thicklash® mascara and winked 1254 times on a piece of paper for each eye. Mona Hatoum has made several pieces that incorporate real hair or focus on it for its connotative purposes (figures 42–45). In each of them, she again questions the boundaries of the human body, envisioning its daily interaction with objects made from itself—the disembodied “unreal” body envelopes the living “real” body.
I chose not to discuss these other pieces because I did not wish to write monographs on these artists. Rather, my intention was to investigate different connotations that hair raises, using select works by these artists as case studies into hair dynamics. I trust that my study not only offered a glimpse into the oeuvre of three very talented and engaging artists, but moreover demonstrated the way hair deeply pervades social, cultural, and artistic issues by diverse means.
The hair used by each artist serves as an anchor of stability even as it flows back and forth between opposing goals or fears. Power sought in terms of race, gender, or mortality is both achieved and held at bay through hair. In that way, hair is a fetish that simultaneously protects and endangers, hides and reveals forces beyond the artist’s control. The artists focus on issues that limit, define, frighten, or enrage them, and use hair as their tool to engage and contend with those issues. Hair defines their status, reveals alternate possibilities, and both cushions and itches the distance between the two.
And now, having washed my hair of this final requirement for the master’s degree, I am ready for a new look. Chop, chop.
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Melinda Hillary Klayman, who usually goes by the surname “Klayperson,” was born in New York on February 18, 1971, the daughter of Karen and Melvyn Klayman. In 1979, she moved to California, where she lost her thick Long Island accent and perfected her beach bunny imitation. After graduating from Agoura High School in 1988, she attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she became a vegetarian and double majored in studio art and art history. During the summer of 1990, she was an intern at the Franklin Furnace in New York City, which infected her perception of art and culture with a pervasive sense of the absurd. She received her Bachelor of Arts with highest honors in 1992. In the following years, she lived in New York, where she worked at the College Art Association and got very fashionable, very expensive haircuts. During the spring and summer of 1995, she lived in Paris, France, with the intention of learning to speak French fluently, but instead learned how to speak English with a French accent. In August, 1995, she entered The Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin. From August 1996–August 1997, she was the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation Curatorial Intern at the Dallas Museum of Art. During her years in Texas, she has determined that hot, humid weather makes her hair frizzy.
This thesis was typed by the author.